Published by Alfred A. Knopf
Review by W. R. Greer
If you've ever read a Carl Hiaasen novel, you can probably guess what you might find in Nature Girl—villains that are some combination of greedy, bumbling, shiftless, and violent; flawed heroes or heroines with a sweet spot at their center; madcap adventures with plenty of twists and turns; and it's all set in his beloved Florida. If you've never read a Carl Hiaasen novel, then Nature Girl is certainly a fine place to start.
At the center of Nature Girl is Honey Santana, a single mother of a 12-year-old son in Everglades City. Honey has bipolar tendencies, hears different songs playing in her head at the same time, and tends to drive everyone around her a little crazy when she tries to right the wrongs of the world. Her world revolves around her son, Fry, and her fervent wishes that there be a better world for him often drive her to these obsessive acts that try to fix whatever has gotten underneath her skin. What sets her off at the beginning of Nature Girl is a telemarketer call, which comes during dinner as usual. It had already been a bad day for Honey. Her boss at the fish market, Louis Piejack, had grabbed her breast and she retaliated by whacking him in the genitals with a crab mallet. The unfortunate telemarketer on the other end of the phone in Texas is Boyd Shreave and when Honey gives him a piece of her mind, he tells her, "Go screw yourself, you dried-up old skank."
Even in the unethical world of telemarketing, this insult to a potential customer gets Boyd fired. Besides being unemployed, being fired means Boyd may lose his mistress, a woman named Eugenie who also works at the telemarketing firm. It's not that Boyd wants to work; he'd rather watch television all day since his wife has inherited a successful chain of pizza restaurants. Boyd needs to work to keep his mother from haranguing him about his listless ways. Eugenie is already tiring of Boyd and his wife has hired a private investigator to record his philandering activities. His world is falling apart around him and he needs something, anything, to let him salvage some sliver of self-respect, although a sliver may be all he had to begin with anyway.
His salvation comes when he receives a telemarketing call offering him a free trip to Florida which includes an ecotour of the Ten Thousand Islands off the southwest Florida coast. All he has to do is listen to a sales pitch about buying some land, which Boyd figures is probably worthless based on his own telemarketing experience. This provides him with a chance to get away from his wife and take Eugenie with him, proving to her that he's really not a boring stiff. What Boyd doesn't realize is that the telemarketer who tracked him down and called him with the offer was none other than the woman he called a skank, Honey Santana.
Honey's ex-husband, whom she refers to as Fry's ex-father, is Perry Skinner, who often bails Honey out of the trouble she causes. He's never stopped loving her, but he finds it impossible to live with her. Fry is often worried about his mother, and he keeps Perry informed when they should be worried about Honey. Fry knows something is up when he is told that Honey's old friends from Texas are coming for a visit, signaling something is about to go very wrong.
Sammy Tigertail, born Chad McQueen, is a man in search of identity. Half-white, half Seminole, he was raised by his white father until his teenage years. When his dad died in an unfortunate strip club accident, his stepmother sent him to live on the Seminole reservation. Sammy has set up a new business giving airboat rides through the Everglades. Unfortunately, his first client, a drunken salesman from Milwaukee, dies from a heart attack on the trip. Figuring this can only cause trouble for him with the white man's world, Sammy anchors the body with weights and drops it into a river. He decides he wants to live the life of a hermit and retreat to a place where he can be left alone. He's well versed in the Indian history of Florida, both Seminole and Calusa, but he lacks any skills to live off the land. Somehow he loses his canoe and in his attempt to acquire another one, he ends up with a college girl, a different type of Seminole from Florida State named Gillian, tagging along. Gillian just wants an adventure with an interesting guy (her current boyfriend can only have sex if he's talking dirty in German) and she thinks Sammy might be her ticket to something.
The theme that runs through Nature Girl is that desire for a sense of belonging. Sammy feels like he doesn't belong anywhere. Gillian is a flighty young woman who wants some anchor to her life. Honey, Perry, and Fry are trying to figure out their family dynamic. Eugenie bemoans her choices in men. Even Dealey, the private investigator who trails Boyd to Florida, finds his life empty outside of his business. Boyd, the pathetic sad sap who set everything in motion, lacks the ambition to want anything besides the latest scam and a woman in his lap.
Sammy, unable to shed Gillian, heads deeper into the Ten Thousand Islands until he arrives at Dismal Key. Which is where Honey is leading Boyd and Eugenie on a kayak tour, unaware that she's being pursued by Dealey and Louis Piejack, who wants Honey more than ever, who in turn are being pursued by Perry and Fry, who is recovering from an unfortunate run-in with a garbage truck. If you're following this plot line so far, you're doing well. Oh, I forgot to mention the religious kooks who are there awaiting the next arrival of Jesus. The different groups of characters split and recombine on Dismal Key in pursuit of each other. There are kidnappings, with both willing and unwilling hostages, three different firearms which never seem to hit their intended targets, a noose, and Fry running around in a football helmet.
Carl Hiaasen, as usual, makes Florida as much of a character in this book as anyone else. I must admit that there's something comforting, perhaps even uplifting, reading a writer who loves the natural splendor of his home environs so much. The target of Hiaasen's ire is often that human element who has little regard for the natural world they inhabit. At one point, Honey is left alone with Boyd, and she realizes what a lost cause he is when he can't appreciate the sunrise from Dismal Key:
The vista from atop the poinciana was timeless and serene—a long string of egrets crossing the distant 'glades: a squadron of white pelicans circling a nearby bay; a pair of ospreys hovering kite-like above a tidal creek. It was a perfect picture and a perfect silence.This sense of rebirth for its characters provides the warmth in Nature Girl, provided they can untangle themselves for the events on Dismal Key. Carl Hiaasen adds a touch of softness to his usual satire as his characters find themselves, and each other, in the process. His satire of the human frailties that cheapen our world, though, still bites and his sense of humor never abates. Laughing out loud and chuckling at the characters' foibles and smart remarks is part of the pleasure of reading Nature Girl. At the end of the novel, he has a Midwest couple discussing moving to Florida after taking a vacation there, a conversation the local bartender has heard a thousand times. Reading Nature Girl has that effect too. Carl Hiaasen makes you want to see that sunrise from Dismal Key and be worthy of it at the same time.
And it was all wasted on Boyd Shreave.
"I gotta take a crap," he said.
Honey rocked forward, clutching her head. The man was unreachable; a dry hole. For such a lunkhead there could no awakening, no rebirth of wonderment. He was impervious to the spell of an Everglades dawn, the vastness and tranquility of the waterscape. Nature held nothing for a person incapable of marvel; Shreave was forever destined to be underwhelmed.
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