Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Tool is a thug. He's been running a farm with immigrant workers without papers and being mean. Now his boss has him bodyguarding the boss's corrupt biologist and maybe killing.

We don't know if Tool has killed anyone before. It doesn't seem like a stretch from where he is, but it may not have come up before.

Carl Hiassen who grew up in Florida, lives in Florida and worked as an investigative reporter in Florida, writes fast moving merry myseries in which he gives the impression of being a cynic.

But he's not. Tool, a character in the Hiassen novel "Skinny Dip," is redeemed. He is changed. He is clearly and believably on the way to living a better life.

The way Tool is redeemed is believable inside the novel. Tool meets a nice old lady, nice but not dumb. He has gone into a nursing home to steal the kind of pain killer patch he is addicted to and that she has on. He has on a white coat, though he doesn't look like a likely doctor, nurse, or medical helper. He looks like a thug.

She is fine with giving him her patches, and strikes up a conversation with him. She finds out he is currently working as a bodyguard and she clearly has sensible ideas about what that might means, since he looks thuggish. She likes him. She tells him to be good.

He goes and see her several times, to get painkiller patches and because he likes her. He remembers that she said she liked watching birds and is happy when he finds on the TV a nature program about migrating birds.

He hasn't before been in the habit of noticing what people like and trying to give it to them.

When he sees a nurse from the Dominican Republic being kind to the old lady, he realizes the nurse could be the sister or daughter of some of the farm workers he has liked to beat up and he realizes that he really isn't in shape to go back to his old supervisor gig, after his body guard gig is over.

The basic bad guy in "Skinny Dip" is the corrupt biologist, Chaz. He doesn't like nature and bumbled into being a biologist for the state with luck and connections. His real boss and tools boss is a big farmer who hires him to fake the results of his water testing.

Using the kind of fertilizer his boss uses kills the lowest part of the food chain in the Everglades, the part that looks like gook. It therefore kills the Everglades, a complex river of grass and animals, and replaces the complexity with cattails. Cattails near the Everglades are a sign of humans killing an ecosystem.

The bad biologist works for the state, takes samples of water near the bad farmer's farm, and lies about how much fertilizer is in the water.

He is also a convincing expert witness is cares not a whit about accuracy.

The bad biologist has gotten in trouble because, like so many Hiassen characters, he is not only bad but stupid.

For a while, the bad farmer thinks its worth it to protect the biologist from the possible results of his stupidity by having Tool bodyguard him. Then the farmer decides the biologist would be better dead, and order Tool to kill him.

But Tool is in the middle of being redeemed by the old lady who likes him and tells him to be good. As the biologist runs away across the Everglades, Tool aims to miss him on purpose and does and the biologist gets away into the Everglades, of which he is terrified. On his own, he would only go there in a Hummer.

As they drive away from the non-murder, Tool and his boss, the bad farmer, stop by the side of the road and get in an argument.

The boss loses track of the fact that Tool is younger, bigger, stronger than him, and yells at Tool. Tool stabs him to death with one mighty blow with a piece of wood right there by the hillside. The guy had been pushing him to murder someone and he did.

The way Hiassen has set up the plot, Tool killing the guy who is making money by being mean to people born in other countries who don't have papers and by killing the Everglades looks a lot like part of Tool's redemtion.

At this point Tool has the biologist's Hummer, $500,000 in cash that the farmer was carrying around (there's alot of loose cash in Hiassen's South Florida), and an affection for the old lady.

He goes and springs her from the nursing home and asks her where she'd like to go. She says Canada to see the north end of bird migrations. And they're off.

Meanwhile, the biologist gets a truly appropriate fate that has been set up by several plot threads and which is left largely to the reader's imagination because it is icky. And so well deserved. We have spent a lot of time with this guy and his comeuppance seems about right.

Hiassen doesn't describe what a wound like the bad farmer dies of would be like in real life. He does describe with some vividness what the death of the Everglades is being like. Sometimes it's cat tails and sometimes it endless parking lots, shopping strips and samey houses.

Hiassen's novels, which are funny, could pass as being unrealistic. Though whenever I think that some wildly eccentric and often stupid character is unrealistic, I can feel Hiassen, the former investigative reporter, saying, "Oh no. Real life is odder than this."

This is the part where we didn't have the US-USSR nuclear war. This is the part where, maybe, we don't kill the environment. In the midst of the yucks, Hiassen might offer some hints.

He's a generous guy, Hiassen. I have given away much of the plot of "Skinny Dip," but there are still acres of plot I haven't touched, like why it's called "Skinny Dip" and the many adventures the wheeled suitcase filled with half a million in cash had before it joined the Canada bird watching excursion.

"Skinny Dip" has more attempted murders than murders, partly because the bad guys are dumb and think everyone else is as dumb as them. The Everglades isn't dead yet. Those that aren't bad and stupid just need to figure out what good and smart is like in action. Not just cat tails and houses, but a future with an enormous amount of texture is what we owe the kids' kids' kids' kids' kids.