Carl of the Wild
With a flourishing career as a darkly comic novelist, Carl Hiaasen hardly needs a day job. So why does he keep writing those acerbic columns for the Miami Herald?
Joanne Kenen is a Miami-based wire service reporter.
Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen is partial to the "sludge" theory of American geography: "If you pick up the country and tilt it, all the sludge would pool in a peninsula at the lower right-hand corner."
In this state of transplants and transients, Hiaasen is that rare breed, a native. He has spent only two of his 40 years outside the state, and never sought work anywhere else. But he considers himself lucky that his career gave him the opportunity to travel. Without points of comparison, he may never have known the truth.
"I sort of figured out Florida was not a normal place," he says, driving his Jeep from his home in the Keys for the daily special fish sandwich and a pitcher of unsweetened iced tea at a roadside restaurant. "Which is good if you're a journalist. As a journalist, you don't want to be in a normal place."
He sometimes wonders what journalists do in normal places. But this is Florida. In Florida, gourmet stores sell Gatorade, drivers don't signal until after they turn and no one is ever too old for spandex.
Beyond South Florida, Hiaasen is best known as the author of five hilarious whodunits, including the new "Strip Tease." Filled with naive tourists, greedy politicians and larger-than-life villains, the books blend his zest for the absurd with his passion for honesty, fairness and the fate of the planet. In both the books and columns, he gets to crack jokes and press his agenda. "Writing," he says, "is very selfish."
He sets his books in the streets and squad cars of Miami. Cops drive around with ice chests in case they find any severed heads. At Our Lady of Tropicana Cemetery, a murdered fisherman is buried with his lucky lures. The Amazing Kingdom of Thrills is a cut-rate nature park with a waterslide designed to look like a 300-foot condom. "Strip Tease" takes place in the Eager Beaver, a Fort Lauderdale club that offers nude wrestling in vats of linguine or creamed corn.
Its heroine is a single mother named Erin, who loses her job as an FBI secretary because of her ex-husband's criminal past – stealing wheelchairs. She finds that exotic dancing pays better than secretarial work, although the hours make it tough to arrange day care. She runs afoul of a deranged congressman, Dave Dilbeck who, when he isn't having sexual fantasies involving her laundry lint, is being paid off by amoral sugar barons who are exploiting Caribbean migrant laborers and dumping phosphate into the Everglades. There's no question about which one is the whore.
It's vintage Hiaasen.
Though Hiaasen gets a lot of mileage out of Florida's weirdness, his Herald column goes beyond the quotidian absurdities of Miami life. When he writes funny columns, it's off-the-news humor, in a style distinct from the novels; he is
biting, sardonic, acerbic. Hiaasen stings.
Graft, Growth and Greed
For each column about man-eating flying barracudas or the politics of Big Hair, there are others about the homeless, gun control, crime, political corruption, environmental destruction. Graft, growth and greed. Greed, growth and graft:
"It's astounding how many Florida politicians are in favor of 'growth management.' Such a clean, strong-sounding, utterly ambiguous phrase.
"And so much easier than coming right out and speaking the unspeakable, which is: We've got too damn many people...
"Hearing all this, one might believe that our leaders finally have grasped the obvious fact that overdevelopment is ruining Florida. If they'd only pay attention to their own campaign donations, they might figure out how Florida got so loused up."
Hiaasen has legions of devotees, but not everyone is a fan. One University of Miami journalism professor says he doesn't read the column, finding it too cynical for his taste. Another professor, Charles Fair at Florida International University, says the column isn't as sharp as it used to be although "his books tear me up."
Even admirers, like novelist and writing teacher James Hall, wonder if Hiaasen is sometimes too harsh, if he sometimes antagonizes readers instead of winning them over. "He can make me mad – and I'm basically on his side," Hall says. "He does galvanize and initiate discussion, but sometimes he's so acid, so mean that he alienates people he needs."
With five books in print, "Strip Tease" appearing on the New York Times bestseller list, film options, a secluded house on stilts by the bay, a boat to fish in and his only child nearly done with college, Hiaasen, 40, doesn't need the day job. In fact, he'd make more money if he quit the paper. "It costs me to work at the Herald," he says. "I could be working full time at writing books."
Which is not to say he never wonders why he does prolong the aggravation. He wonders a lot, especially around 5 p.m. when he turns on the local news "scrounging for a column idea." But Hiaasen wants to write about local issues; readers of his books in Denver or Duluth may not care whether a convicted extortionist is running for mayor of Hialeah on a "persecuted martyr" platform or that an antiquated sewer system threatens to turn Biscayne Bay into "Chernobyl-under-the-palms."
Hiaasen wants to be heard about such things, and he wants to be heard in time for the next county commission vote or zoning board hearing. And he doesn't want to have to be arch or flip all of the time.
"I really believe in the tradition of metro columns," he says. "Big cities, dynamic cities, big cities need that kind of voice – strong, opinionated, cantankerous – whether you agree with them or don't agree with them.
"The column has an immediacy that books cannot have. Day-to-day journalism is hard to beat for immediate feedback and the high that comes from pounding out something on deadline."
The columns also let him craft essays about topics that he does not want to treat in light fiction – Haitian refugees, slain cops, the death of a child, the suicide of a mother, even, occasionally, the world beyond Florida.
Despite South Florida's wealth of material, the man who invented a strip club bouncer so jaded he could only get turned on by women in clothes, or a pock-marked hitman who sold his services and his soul for dermabrasion, claims he has trouble coming up with ideas for the column three, and now two, times a week. "I had never been in a job where I had to generate that many ideas and go after them. Even on G.A. [general assignment] 90 percent of the time you'd walk in and there was a story waiting on your desk."
Whatever doubts grip him as he awaits inspiration, Hiaasen finds his mark: those kind building inspectors who made Dade County safe from hurricanes and those kinder insurance companies who cried foul after figuring out what it means to be in the business of risk; a Cuban exile leader he calls "Miami's resident tyrant in waiting"; a sheriff who had female deputies on crotch patrol search suspiciously bulging male air travelers; the prosecutor fired for dressing like a bimbo ("Exactly how do bimbos dress? Is there a legal distinction between a bimbo and, say, a trollop or a hussy?"); a distasteful display by civic leaders demonstrating they were drug free ("This isn't leadership. It's vaudeville. Is there another place in the civilized world where the Catholic archbishop has to urinate in a cup to prove he's clean?").
Herald Executive Editor Douglas C. Clifton says that when Hiaasen takes a leave – to finish a book, promote a book, or, as he is wont, go fishing – readers suspect nefarious forces at work. "I get letters saying 'So, they've finally gotten to you. You've gotten rid of him,' " Clifton says, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial parody. "People suspect we muzzle him when he's out of the paper."
"White Hot Rage"
Even if Hiaasen, published Thursday and Sunday, still craves the deadline high, he no longer hankers for the jolt of the newsroom. It's partly age. It's partly lifestyle. It's partly the traffic.
"You get in such a foul mood sitting in the traffic. I do, anyway. And I start going nuts, and by the time I get there, I'm not, you know, I'm looking for violence, I'm not looking for inspiration," says Hiaasen, who makes the two-hour drive to the office about once a week.
Clifton, who has known Hiaasen since the mid-1970s and admires his "white hot rage," would like to see more of him. "If I had my druthers, I'd have him in the newsroom and in the city, and writing more of the reported columns that he used to write. But Hiaasen as a straight-up commentator is so powerful that you sometimes accept that trade-off."
Before taking on the column, Hiaasen was a high-profile Herald investigative reporter. The transition was not an easy one.
"I was going from one extreme to another, from the length and discipline of the investigations team, which was the most rigorous of any part of the paper, purging all subjectivity from your work, having every line scrutinized by editors and lawyers. We watched while every adjective was agonized over. To go from that to a column – it's your column, you can say what you want – it's a whole different endeavor... I could go whatever way I wanted with it.
"It took me a while to get into the sync of it, to get into the rhythm of that kind of writing. There was a whole new set of disciplines that come in to play with the rhythm of getting in and out of an idea that quickly and making a point."
Clifton and other Herald staffers say that Hiaasen columns generate fewer screeching phone calls nowadays but that he has not mellowed. Rather, after eight years, prominent Miamians have come to accept his column or have figured out that their complaints are not going to tame the man promoted in Herald ads as "Carl of the Wild."
Old friends from the Herald speak with unqualified affection and say Hiaasen wears his growing fame well. Younger reporters say he is unaffected and helpful. Even when invited to go off the record, no one backbites, a newsroom occurrence as hard to believe as anything in Hiaasen's fiction.
Hiaasen is somewhat a celebrity – and a force – in a one-newspaper town. Several prominent civic and political leaders did not return phone calls or declined to describe what it's like to be on the receiving end of his written assaults. An exception is Stephen Clark, who is running for mayor of Miami this fall now that his largely ceremonial post of Dade County mayor has been abolished.
"He should keep to his position as a fiction writer and stay out of journalism... He just chops everyone, anybody who's got any authority," says Clark, ferociously mocked by the columnist as a political magician able to make himself disappear at the first hint of a crisis. "No one listens to those diatribes."
Political consultant Ric Katz does pay attention, and has even used column excerpts in a campaign. But he's not sure newspaper columnists exert much influence on entrenched political players with fixed public images. And on Hiaasen's broader theme, the danger of rampant development, Katz fears he may be preaching to the unconvertible.
If any of Hiaasen's targets are hoping that he might follow the path of many excellent reporters into the world of editing, thereby sparing them from his broadsides, they can forget about it. Given a chance to enter management when he was 30, Hiaasen turned it down flat.
"Never, not in a million years," he says. "You couldn't put a gun to my head to make me go into management at any newspaper. You have to be insane. Writing and reporting are the fun part of the business."
A Refuge in the Keys
Hiaasen used to divide his time between a home near Fort Lauderdale and a getaway in the Keys. He still goes to Fort Lauderdale frequently to visit the first Carl Hiaasen, his 99-year-old Norwegian grandfather. The elder Hiaasen established the family in Florida in 1922 and, ironically, made his living as a lawyer for developers – the businessmen his namesake now makes his living decrying. But this year, Hiaasen started spending most of his time in the Keys. He's got a computer, a modem and a telephone book, but he has yet to install a fax.
He's animated when giving a talk or a reading, but quiet, a bit ill at ease alone with a stranger. Lean, tanned and outdoorsy, he seems like he'd be more comfortable watching porpoises on a quiet inlet than talking about himself. Bracing himself for the "Strip Tease" promotional tour, he dropped the column for a week and slipped off to the Bahamas. "Fishing. No phone," he explains. He's surprisingly serious. No explosions of mirth. Few wisecracks, and none until after he relaxes.
The personal anecdotes he proffers tend to be about his 22-year-old son, Scott, who once deflected questions from a high school typing teacher about his Father-The-Writer by saying his dad wrote how-to home repair books. (Hiaasen is living apart from his wife after more than 20 years of marriage.) His home phone is unlisted, and when it rings, there's a good chance it's a family member exchanging notes on younger brother Rob's imminent move from the Palm Beach Post to Baltimore's Sun. Books by Thomas McGuane and Wallace Stegner are stacked on his table alongside slim volumes on bonefish and tarpon. Nothing about deep water fish. Hiaasen gets seasick.
Hiaasen used to be right in the vortex at the Herald. Even when he was a writer for the paper's Sunday magazine, Tropic, he insisted on keeping his desk in the city room. By the time he was 30, he had been a general assignment reporter, a feature writer and one of the Herald's most prized investigators. He wasn't always funny: His old clips, like his 1983 account of an execution after Florida restored the death penalty, blend texture and power:
"At 9:59 a.m. Wednesday, Robert Austin Sullivan came to the death chamber. He wore a new white shirt, dark blue pants and a look of absolute mortal fear.
"His head was shaved and smeared with ointment. His eyes were moist and searching. He bit his lip and took deep breaths, trying not to cry."
But his dry wit and sarcasm were always just beneath the surface. His first venture in journalism was "More Trash," a high school "counter-newsletter" that took on the principal and the football team. "It was irreverent and smart-ass," he recalls. "Sarcasm and satire – unfortunately that fit my personality rather well naturally. It was not hard to take that attitude."
He married young, in his freshman year at Emory University. After two years in Atlanta, his only sustained time out of state, he transferred to the University of Florida at Gainesville. There were some personal and financial factors in the decision, but Florida's journalism school was a big pull.
His first job was as a flack for the campus police. There were 40 to 50 officers on the campus force, and the job taught Hiaasen how a cop shop works and what it means to be on the other end of a reporter's call. "I think it's a good experience for anyone who wants to be a journalist to sit there and answer questions from journalists," he says.
This being the early 1970s, it also taught him about streakers. The fad seems to have left an impression on Hiaasen, whose novels are peopled with remarkable numbers of characters in nontraditional states of undress. In "Double Whammy," a woman answers the door at a televangelist's hotel suite wearing only a fisherman's canvas hip waders. With suspenders.
After college, he went to Cocoa Today (now Florida Today), on Florida's Space Coast, where he did what other young reporters do on general assignment but did it better than most. He was soon transferred to the Sunday magazine.
The Miami Herald took note and offered him a job. Although he had grown up reading the Herald, Hiaasen was hesitant about returning to South Florida. His six-year absence had coincided with a real estate boom, and his childhood haunts, the canals where he fished tarpon and the scrub lands where he hunted snakes and "critters," had been covered with convenience stores and shopping malls.
"I had to think long and hard about whether I wanted to go back to South Florida," he says. "I knew it would be painful for me to come and see what they'd done to the place. But in the end, professionally, it would have been kind of idiotic to say no to the Herald." It was 1976. He was 23.
He had only been in the Broward County bureau, near his childhood home, six months when the St. Petersburg Times dangled a plum: writing a cross between a column and a feature. It would mean uprooting his family again and moving away from his recently widowed mother. But it was tempting.
Jim Savage, now the associate managing editor for investigations at the Herald, remembers inviting Hiaasen to his house to talk it over. "Gene Miller and I did everything but stand on our heads to get Carl to stay at the Herald." The acrobatics were unnecessary; a transfer to the Miami city desk sufficed. As a bonus, he was seated near Miller, a two-time Pulitzer winner who became a mentor.
Still in his 20s, Hiaasen swiftly moved up and became a writer for the Sunday magazine, gradually taking on more complex assignments. But he wanted to be a part of the city desk: "I wanted to get back and do some really serious stuff." The timing was perfect. Miller was assembling a team to investigate incompetent doctors and find out why it was so hard to discipline them. Hiaasen joined.
Miller, now the bow-tied eminence grise in the Herald newsroom, keeps a yellowed reprint of the eight-part 1979 series at hand. Written by Hiaasen, the leadoff piece to "Dangerous Doctors" begins:
"Dr. David Romano had one of his surgery patients wheeled out of the hospital while her fractured pelvis was still mending. He drove her to his apartment, had sexual intercourse with her, then took her back to the hospital."
(Romano denied wrongdoing.)
The team found doctors on drugs, doctors who rape, doctors who cheat. They found doctors who removed the wrong kidney, treated the wrong patient, or used the wrong surgical tools, with deadly consequences. They even found one on roller skates who prescribed head stands to combat aging. Miraculously, the roller skater has not yet appeared in Hiaasen's fiction, although "Skin Tight" did recount how far a plastic surgeon went to cover up a fatally botched nose job on a female college student whose boyfriend called her "anteater."
Hiaasen spent about five years on Savage's team, rooting in the Florida sludge and surfacing with a skein of villains tied up in his crystalline prose. A team hallmark was looking beyond the bad guys – drug dealers, quacks or developers – to the police, prosecutors and regulators who had failed to stop them, and to the ordinary people who stood by and let it happen. Colleagues also remember that the anger and outrage that now lurk behind the humor were more raw, more palpable in those days.
"He was going up against people who have power. He had his own sense of power – based on what was right and what was wrong," remembers Herald reporter Patty Shillington. At 22, she helped follow up a series by Hiaasen and then-Herald investigator Brian Duffy that blocked condominium construction on land dense with buttonwoods, pigeon plums and gumbo-limbo trees, land that remains a rare undeveloped stretch on the Upper Keys.
When talking about Hiaasen, editors and fellow reporters from those days allude to his incisive style, his capacity to zero in on precisely what he needed instead of vacuuming up masses of ultimately irrelevant detail. Jim McGee, now with the Washington Post, remembers Hiaasen as an investigator with "a gleam in his eye," eager to pursue another angle in an investigation everyone else had considered complete. Savage, who regards his protege as the best he has seen, remembers that a project about smuggling in Key West started out with far more expectation than direction. "Everyone kept saying there's a great story down there in Key West, senior editors kept saying 'Go do it.' But what exactly is the story – nobody knew, including me. We eventually defined a story – largely because of Carl."
When Hiaasen got the story, he knew how to tell it:
"Fishermen on the docks of Key West call it 'The Machine.'
"Its network is penetrating, its hours are nocturnal, and its merchandise is marijuana.
"In two years, a conspicuous, unbridled, smuggling industry has boosted Key West's seesaw economy, made millionaires of failed fishermen and demoralized underpaid law officers.
"The cops can't stop it, the prosecutors don't prosecute and the people of this historic island have accepted it with nonchalance."
Equal Opportunity Curmudgeon
Investigating had its drawbacks. Scott Hiaasen, at 10, didn't quite know what dad did. "He only had four or five bylines a year," says the younger Hiaasen. (Scott was initiated into Floridiana as a Herald intern this summer when he covered the trial of an alleged fence for a transvestite gang suspected in a heist at a boutique for mastectomy patients.) Carl Hiaasen, freeze-framed in friends' memories pounding on a portable typewriter on a kitchen table while everyone else was unwinding after a 12-hour day chasing the bad guys, remembers that he chafed when he wasn't writing.
"Four months is a long damn time," he says, hastening to explain it wasn't an obsession with seeing his byline but simply too much pent up writing energy. "I'd work all day in the courthouse filling notebooks but I had writing energy – all this writing energy – and the books started coming out."
"Tourist Season" in 1986, followed by "Double Whammy," "Skin Tight," "Native Tongue" and "Strip Tease," were the feverish results. Populated by Florida zanies, the books are ostensibly mysteries, but since the culprits are known by page 90, the suspense and the hilarity come from their comeuppance. Nothing as mundane as guns and knives for Hiaasen's villains. They meet their fate in sugar cane grinders, bass boat propellers and wood chippers.
He had earlier coauthored three thrillers with Herald colleague William D. Montalbano, now a Rome-based correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. But Hiaasen's distinctive voice emerged in "Tourist Season," in which an eco-extremist newspaper columnist enlists bumbling Cuban terrorists to restore Florida to its natural state by ridding it of tourists – by feeding them to crocodiles.
Hiaasen explains that it really isn't tourists he hates, at least as long as they don't straddle both lanes in front of him with a map on their lap and a camcorder hanging out of a rented red LeBaron convertible. No, Hiaasen is an equal opportunity curmudgeon.
"I don't really mind the tourists. I mind the people who come and stay," he says, noting that the state absorbs about 1,000 newcomers a day. "Florida just can't take any more – whether they're from Port-au-Prince or from Long Island. We've got too many damn people."
And along with tourists, immigrants, retirees and Sunbelt dreamers lured to Florida by the promise of sunshine and the smell of money, come the weirdos, the wackos, the scammers, the predators; the drip, drip, drip of sludge. "It attracts geeks for the same reasons as normal people. They want a tropical paradise," he says. "If you're going to be an embezzler, why live in Minnesota in frigid temperatures when you can be here?"
When he started the column, he expected to give it five years. But eight years have passed; those 600 words on page B-1 have held his interest longer than any other form of newspaper writing. Sometimes he thinks he had more influence as an investigative reporter, when he wrote "serious stuff with an immediate impact as soon as it hit the papers." But he isn't ready to surrender the column.
Underneath the wit and bluster, Carl Hiaasen might really be more quixotic than cantankerous. He knows much of what he is fighting to save already has been lost to the builders and bulldozers, buried under the cement and the sludge.
"I'm not under any illusion that I'll stop them," he says. "But I do like to ruin their day occasionally." l ###