Published by Alfred A. Knopf
Review by W. R. Greer
Chaz Perrone should have had it all. He had a beautiful and rich wife, a doctorate in marine biology, a cushy job with the state, a lucrative scam with an agribusiness where he falsified water quality reports from the Everglades, several girlfriends, and a brand new Humvee. Unfortunately, Chaz was greedy, lazy, self-centered, adulterous, and lacking in both ethics and backbone. When he became nervous that his wife, Joey, had found about his scam, he took her on a cruise to celebrate their second anniversary and then tossed her overboard in the middle of night. He might have gotten away with it too, if she hadn't survived.
Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen begins with Joey alone and naked in the Atlantic Ocean, lucky to survive the fall from the ship, cursing her husband, and trying to figure out why he found it necessary to kill her instead of divorcing her. Despite being a champion swimmer in her college days, she knows her chances of survival in the ocean are slim. After a fortunate encounter with a bale of Jamaican pot to keep her afloat and then being pulled from the water by Mick Stranahan, Joey survives and then wants to get even. Instead of calling the police, she decides to haunt Chaz from the grave in an attempt to understand his motivation for killing her, hiding out on the tiny island with Mick and his dog. Back at their house, Chaz is already is already boffing his girlfriend and throwing out everything Joey ever owned while trying to play the grieving husband.
This is the setting for a hilarious novel by Carl Hiaasen. Chaz Perrone has not one admirable quality about him and he crumples under pressure. Yet his misadventures after committing what he thought was the perfect crime make him one of the most entertaining villains to be found in recent literature. When Joey's belongings begin turning up in the house after he already boxed them up in preparation for a trip to the dump, Chaz doesn't know what to make of it. He becomes so flustered that he becomes impotent, unable to live up to his reputation as an indefatigable stud. It begins to affect his work, even the little work he does. He's taking kickbacks from agribusiness magnate Red Hammernut, whose farms have been pumping tons of fertilizers into the Everglades. Red obviously wants to have Chaz keep his wits about him to keep him quiet about their illegal arrangement, so he sends one of his henchman, nicknamed Tool, to keep an eye on Chaz. Tool is large, extremely hairy, fairly stupid, and prone to violence. His hobby is stealing crosses from accident scene memorials and planting them outside his trailer. It doesn't help that he's continually ornery due to a bullet lodged in his butt crack and that he sneaks into nursing homes to steal narcotic pain patches from its unsuspecting patients. Karl Rolvaag is the displaced Minnesotan who is the detective assigned to the case and he mistrusts Chaz immediately. His contant badgering about discrepancies in Chaz's story help unnerve Chaz even more.
One of the strengths of Skinny Dip is the cast of characters, and they're all characters. The most normal and sympathetic of the bunch is Joey Perrone. She and her brother, Corbett, were orphaned when their wealthy parents died after a bear crashed their private plane. You read that right. Corbett now lives in New Zealand and prefers sheep to people. Joey has never let her wealth be a real factor in her life. She never even told her first husband about it. While Chaz knew she was worth 13 million dollars, he also signed a pre-nuptial agreement that precluded him from ever inheriting any of it. This leaves Joey dumbstruck as to why Chaz wanted to kill her. She struggles with her choices in life, especially her marriage to Chaz. In Carl Hiaasen's capable hands, though, he makes her own explanations of her poor choices understandable. Joey finds herself attracted to Mick Stranahan, although he has his own baggage from failed relationships. Mick has six ex-wives and a string of girlfriends who couldn't handle the isolated life on his island. Mick is also an ex-cop, which allows him to use old connections to dig into Chaz's background and help Joey plan her revenge. Even Mick's dog, an abandoned Doberman named Strom who spends his days barking and eating, comes across as a lovable character. Rolvaag keeps pythons in his condo, which drives his female neighbors nuts, especially when their small pets begin to disappear. Tool adds to Chaz's predicament, at times protecting him and and at other times brutalizing him.
The best and most hilarious part of Skinny Dip is Chaz Perrone. He's such a bad marine biologist that he doesn't even know which way the Gulf Stream flows. He absolutely loathes the outdoors, especially the humid, buggy, and dangerous Everglades. To keep up appearances on the job, though, he must constantly fetch the water quality specimens from the swamp, even though he plans to do nothing more than empty it out. This brings him more grief, especially when Tool accompanies him and makes things even worse. Chaz's mixture of lies and charm to extricate himself from each situation only pushes him farther in. He freaks out during a sexual encounter with a woman when he smells his wife's perfume, not knowing that Joey is hiding under the bed. As pathetic as Chaz is, you never feel sorry for him. He's such a despicable character that you smile smugly at each comeuppance and laugh at his frantic attempts to control what's happening to him.
The final character in this novel is southern Florida itself. It's obvious that Carl Hiaasen loves the area and is frustrated at the lifestyles that have polluted both its human and natural environments. His disdain for the politicians, agribusinesses, and behaviors of many of its denizens provide multiple chances for him to hit each of them with his rendering of their less attractive qualities. Satire often is the most effective tool for belittlling those who have it coming, and Hiaasen takes no prisoners when he skewers the targets of his disdain.
Skinny Dip was a joy to read, tickling the funny bone while contrasting the beauty of the Everglades against the coldheartedness and greed of man. In the end, though, love and humanity rule the day, so all is not dark in Carl Hiaasen's world. There's hope for us all, with the exception, alas, of Chaz Perrone. Read Skinny Dip and enjoy his well-deserved misfortune.
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