Nature Girl by Carl Hiaasen

Oline H. Cogdill [South Florida Sun-Sentinel]

In his 11th novel Carl Hiaasen doesn't focus on his favorite subject -- the spoiling of Florida. He turns it personal in a tale about how we treat each other.

Nature Girl

Publisher: Knopf
Length: 320
Formats: Hardcover
Price: $25.95
Author: Carl Hiaasen
US publication date: 2006-11

It's a scenario played out across the country nightly: You've just sat down for dinner or rushed into the house after a hard day at work or woken up from a much-needed nap -- and the phone rings. And it's a telemarketer.

Most of us just hang up, muttering not-so-nice words.

But not Honey Santana.

She's tired of the calls that interrupt her time with her son, angry about shoddy service, had it with rudeness in general -- and don't even get her started on littering. When a telemarketer calls her a rude name, Honey decides to get even and teach a thing about respect to this caller.

In his 11th novel, Nature Girl, Carl Hiaasen doesn't focus on his favorite subject -- the spoiling of Florida. He turns it personal in a tale about how we treat each other. Using his trademark dry, wry humor, Hiaasen shows how bad behavior tears the fabric of society.

Hiaasen hasn't neglected social commentary about the ruination of Florida. There are plenty of scenes about its ecology and beauty and more than a couple of bizarre characters. But Nature Girl becomes a more personal story, focusing on a single mother trying to raise a very bright, observant son. Perhaps she and her ex-husband never should have married, but maybe they also shouldn't have divorced.

Hiaasen's novels have always defied labeling -- quasi-crime fiction, semi-mystery, all social satire. Nature Girl is even harder to define. The violence is minuscule, the deaths occur more than 200 pages apart and the real mystery here is not whodunit but why we are so nasty to each other.

Honey Santana is a direct descendent of TV newsman Howard Beale in Paddy Chayefsky's brilliant 1976 film Network. Honey is mad as hell, but not only is she not going to take it anymore, she's also going to get even.

When telemarketer Boyd Shreave insults her, Honey tracks him down to his home in Texas, pretends to be a telemarketer herself and offers to send him and a friend on a free eco-tour of Florida. Honey, who's more than a little bi-polar, is sincere about trying to make Boyd a better man. The problem is that Boyd is an ineffective slacker with "an air of sour arrogance" whose "feeble arc of his career had more or less flat-lined" as a telemarketer. Although he doesn't know it, his affair with Eugenia Fonda, a statuesque co-worker with a history of picking the wrong men, was over before it began.

So Boyd, with the reluctant Eugenia in tow, sets out for Florida, visions of glorious beaches and fruited drinks with tiny umbrellas dancing in their heads. But Honey has a different kind of eco-tour in mind -- a trip to the aptly named Dismal Key in the 10,000 Islands near Everglades City. Soon however, the remote isle becomes as busy as Rick's Cafe in Casablanca. Everyone comes here: Honey's still-caring ex-husband, out to save her from herself; her intelligent, wise-beyond-his-12-years son, Fry; a young Seminole named Sammy Tigertail; and assorted other characters.

Nature Girl is typical Hiaasen, with a brisk story overflowing with satire, wisecracks and the fear of what society is becoming. The cast is one of his most accessible, with only a couple of over-the-top but still believable characters. The main characters are as real as your next-door neighbors -- with a few quirks. Honey hears music in her head -- Celia Cruz and Nine Inch Nails, "a dual blast of Ethel Merman and the Foo Fighters" -- and indulges in a bit of erratic behavior. But she's an everywoman whose motives are pure, and the reader can't help rooting for her "rabid intolerance of callousness and folly."

Hiaasen gives the same realism to her ex-husband, Perry Skinner, a decent, hard-working man who loves his family, a former drug runner who's now Everglades City's vice mayor. And Fry's savvy intelligence may be enough to keep the family together.

Florida maintains a high profile in its own right. None of the characters are quite prepared for the extent of the great outdoors that Hiaasen thrusts on them -- certainly not Boyd. His favorite TV show may be Survivor, but that's the extent of his interest in the outdoors. Tigertail's mother is Seminole, but he grew up in suburban Broward with his Caucasian father. (For trivia buffs, Sammy is the nephew of Tommy Tigertail, who played a pivotal part in Hiaasen's debut, Tourist Season.)

The gentle, highly entertaining Nature Girl will never be mistaken for a hard-boiled novel. But the mystery of human behavior is the real plot twist.

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