Carl Hiaasen's forays beneath Florida's orange-juice-and-sunshine facade over the past 10 years have been reflected in his Miami Herald columns, as well as in the characters that populate his satirical crime novels. In that fictional world the action always takes place in Florida, and beginning with his first novel, Tourist Season, in 1986, Hiaasen has introduced readers to a collection of losers, freaks, geeks, skewed heroes, politicians on the take and hustlers on the make. Currently Hiaasen is in the midst of an if-this-is-Monday-it-must-be- Philadelphia tour to promote Stormy Weather, his sixth novel, which, considering its leap onto the bestseller lists, seems to be a self-starter.
Sometimes life in South Florida seems to imitate Hiaasen's art. "I wrote Native Tongue about this theme-park developer," he says, "and a few years after the book came out, [ Blockbuster Entertainment's Wayne] Huizenga announced his plans for Blockbuster Park. It doesn't look like it's going to get built, but gee, no matter what you make up, it can't top reality."
Hiaasen likens the difference between novel-writing and column-writing to painting a landscape versus sketching on a cocktail napkin. But it's those 600-word sketches that matter most to him. If one of his twice-weekly columns can exact even a tiny change in Miami, Tallahassee or Washington, Hiaasen thinks he has had a greater literary impact. His passion and perception have combined to make him the region's poet laureate, its champion, its conscience.
In this week's issue, beginning on page 76, Hiaasen writes about the decline of Florida Bay. "I'd read Hiaasen's novels, and I knew he was absolutely the perfect writer for this story," says assistant managing editor Rob Fleder. "He makes you laugh out loud at things that are awful, and he loves Florida, but sees it clearly, including the hideous warts."
The Hiaasen family has lived in the state since 1922 and passed an affection for South Florida down through generations like a family heirloom. Carl, 42, grew up in Plantation, west of Fort Lauderdale, on the fringes of the Everglades, with a front-row view of the erosion of that delicate ecosystem. When he first saw suburban sprawl encroaching on his neighborhood paradise, he fought back by pulling up land-survey stakes. Later, after earning a journalism degree from the University of Florida in 1974, words became his weapon. He joined the Herald in 1976. "It's not one hundredth of what it was when my father first took me," Hiaasen says of the Florida Keys. "And from the stories my grandfather told, maybe it's not one thousandth of what it was when he first saw it."
"His novels are a conduit for his anger," says Hiaasen's son, Scott, a police reporter at The Palm Beach Post. "They have a sense of moral righteousness. But they also allow him to realize his fantasies. An Everglades lawsuit isn't nearly as sexy as having a developer eaten by a crocodile."
Like the characteristic happy conclusions of his novels, everything may work out in the end for Florida Bay. But Hiaasen has more faith in nature than he does in man. "If you leave nature alone," he says, "it will begin to recover."