Carl Hiaasen grew up in a Florida without superhighways, high-speed fiber-optic cable or 19 million neighbors.
“It was basically swamp and Everglades, and I spent my childhood afternoons and weekends outdoors, fishing, and couldn’t imagine a happier place to be,” says Hiaasen, the New York Times best-selling author of an abundance of punchy capers thick with Floridian pride and preservationist admonition (Star Island, Bad Monkey, Strip Tease).
“I think we never escape our childhood, for better or for worse, and in my case I’ve watched this state go from 5 million to 19 million, and the change has been tumultuous, depressing and cataclysmic for certain beautiful places that no longer exist, because they’re trampled over. So there’s anger and a sense of injustice, and I think there is in every book that has a satirical edge,” he says.
Hiaasen doesn’t sacrifice his edge for Skink—No Surrender, his first YA novel (readers 10-15).
Richard, 14, is at the beach to meet his cousin Malley, also 14, who’s a no-show. Instead, he meets a huge bedraggled man who literally bursts out of the sand.
“Built like a grizzly, he was coughing and swearing and spitting through a long caked beard. On his chiseled block of a head he wore (I swear) a flowered plastic shower cap. Even weirder, his left eye and right eye were pointed in totally different directions. I vaulted back over the ribbon and snatched up my baseball bat. He said, ‘Get serious, boy,’ ” Hiaasen writes.
Former Florida governor Clinton Tyree, AKA Skink, a 72-year-old, presumed-dead environmental vigilante, had been disguised as a turtle nest to catch egg poachers (before Richard unknowingly pinched his air source, a solitary straw).
Conceived as a walk-on in Hiaasen’s second novel, Double Whammy, Skink’s outsized personality generated a huge response, leading to his appearance in several subsequent novels.
“I thought kids would dig this character, too,” Hiaasen says. “He’s on the edge, but his heart is in the right place. He’s not a superhero, he’s not a wizard, he doesn’t have a pet dragon and he’s not a vampire—he’s just an old guy who cares about the place where he was born and raised—but he makes things happen.”
Skink and Richard are soon tracking a predator together: the sketchy guy Malley met on the Internet, with whom she’s run away. “Talbo Chock” is not who he says he is—in fact, he’s appropriating the name and biographical information of a dead soldier. In a sporadic series of phone calls to Richard, Malley maintains she’s in control, but the truth soon dawns on her.
“I could hear a male voice in the background. Obviously she’d told Online Talbo that she was calling her mother. ‘If you need help,’ I said, ‘ask me about your dad.’ ‘Sure. How’s Dad doing?’ I looked at the governor, who moved his fingers like he was pulling on a piece of taffy. String out the conversation, he was telling me. Get more information. ‘If you’re still in Florida,” I said to Malley, ‘say something about the weather.’ ‘It’s been sunny and clear, just fantastic. You guys had rain?’ ” Hiaasen writes.
Richard and Skink follow the few foreboding clues south, into the swamp. Though there are laughs to be had along the way, the situation is serious, not slapstick, and Malley’s abductor is in for one hell of a comeuppance if Skink ever gets within arm’s reach. (What he does to that turtle egg poacher, when he finally catches him, will pale in comparison.)
“With Skink, it’s not the necessarily the way that the authorities would handle it or a Quaker would tell you to deal with the situation. Somebody’s gonna get hurt, and it’s just what it is,” Hiaasen says. “My point is, I know people like that, and they’re not bad people. They get excitable when they see something that they think is wrong.”
“There are people who can turn away, and there are people who can’t turn away—those are the folks that end up making a difference. They certainly end up making an impression—which is what you want for your characters,” he says.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.