Dade Ain't Disney
The big advantage to getting your foreign thrills in South Florida rather than in, say, Bogotá, is that at the nearest newsstand you will have available the pre-eminent interpreter of a multicultural society. I've already named him: Carl Hiaasen. Readers outside Florida know him for his novels, three of which--Lucky You, Strip Tease and Stormy Weather--have made the New York Times bestseller list. (A new one, Sick Puppy, has just been published.)
Inside Florida, Hiaasen fans also have known him as a ferociously witty columnist for the Miami Herald since the mid-eighties. The columns collected in Kick Ass cover that decade and a half, leaving a trail of blood from Hiaasen's barracuda-like attacks on the spoilers of South Florida. Though they are entertaining, urban dwellers everywhere should read them as more than entertainment; they probably foretell many of the painful issues that await other overcrowded areas of America. Miami, like Los Angeles, is one of the nation's polyglot signposts (dented by bullets) into the twenty-first century.
What is the creative relationship of Hiaasen's books to his columns? My guess is that he became frustrated with the latter, in which he could attack only with insults, satisfying his moral outrage by calling a politician "a pernicious little ferret," for example, or a county commission "an oozing sludge bucket of corruption." So he turned to novels, where he has the satisfaction of terminating obnoxious politicians and developers in some wacky, ingenious ways--such as having one of them humped to death by Dickie the Dolphin in a theme-park whale tank.
In the interest of full disclosure, I confess to having once been employed as a political reporter for the Miami Herald, but that was long before Hiaasen came aboard. Our paths crossed only once, at a distance, when I wrote a critical profile of Miami for The New York Times Magazine twelve years ago. Miami leaders were so incensed that a squadron of them, after first setting up comfortable headquarters in the Waldorf, descended on the Times to complain. Hiaasen came to my defense, writing that my article if anything "was merciful for not dwelling on more current events," including the arrival of "a new group of international narco-assassins" and a police scandal so extensive you would "need a calculator to add up all the former city cops implicated in drug-rip-off murder schemes."
In fact, the main thing wrong with my piece was that Hiaasen hadn't written it. To adequately describe and deal with South Florida exotica, a writer has to offer up much more than colorful facts. He has to have a special attitude--Hiaasen's, which is an intelligent version of that cliché, tough love. He really does love that part of the world, which no doubt is why he is such an effective harpooner of its civic blowhards and merciless harasser of its thieves and cheats, especially those on the public tit.
It was Hiaasen, for example, who described Miami's municipal bureaucracy as "a Banana Peel Republic," in which city employees were "either the clumsiest bunch in the country, or the most brazenly dishonest," a conclusion he drew from the fact that one out of three had filed for workers' compensation. More than a hundred claimed they got hurt falling out of their chairs. As for the 254 employees who had made more than ten claims apiece, Hiaasen suggested they "wear bubble wrap to work."