Carl Hiaasen – Native Tongue

I haven’t finished reading Native Tongue – for the third or fourth time – but since it’s too hot to do anything else, I’ll blog about it anyway. Carl Hiaasen’s fourth novel, released in 1991, is set in the oppressive heat of Florida. It deals with theme parks, but doesn’t exactly work as a Disney advert. As former investigative journalist Hiaasen said, “The Sunshine State is a paradise of scandals teeming with drifters, deadbeats, and misfits drawn here by some dark primordial calling like demented trout. And you’d be surprised how many of them decide to run for public office.”

e-notes.com’s summary of the labyrinthine plot is more succinct than I could manage:

Joe Winder is a journalism dropout employed to compose press releases for the Amazing Kingdom, a Florida theme park that aspires to greatness a la Disney World. The park is owned by a former “wise guy” whose court testimony forced him to seek refuge in the Federal Witness Protection Program. A new identity and a change of venue, however, did nothing to alter the morals of Francis X. Kingsbury. He thinks nothing of faking wildlife exhibits, destroying the fragile environment of the Florida Keys, or using lethal means to protect his nefarious schemes from public exposure. When an equally amoral environmentalist resolves to thwart Kingsbury’s grand design, life becomes quite interesting in the Amazing Kingdom—so much so that even the jaded Winder comes out of retirement as an investigative reporter to join the crusade. Winder finds himself in alliance with an ex-governor seeking absolution in the life of a hermit, law enforcement officials with a peculiar sense of justice, two of the most bumbling burglars ever to circumvent an alarm system, and an incredibly bloodthirsty senior citizen. This motley group, with the assistance of a contract killer sent by the mob to eliminate Kingsbury, put paid to those who would damage the environment and subvert the democratic process.

Native Tongue is very much the sort of book that would make an excellent film. But, then again, I thought that of Hiaasen’s subsequent novel, Strip Tease, and the film of that was a travesty if ever I saw one.

That said, the film adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty was very good, and definitely has the same rapid-fire humour as Hiaasen’s novels.

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It has the same ingredients: unblinking violence, surreal slapstick, eye-watering corruption and tantalising wealth. In Native Tongue, mobsters play golf with celebrity pros and park employees get fired for having sex on Mr Toad’s Wild Ride. It has the same raw cynicism – this time not of the movie industry but of theme parks and press releases. You’ll never hear “shocked and saddened” again without an involuntary smirk.

Here’s an extract:

Under the TV lights, the tan young spokesperson finally was revealing what had been stolen in the daring robbery.
‘As many of you know,’ he said, ‘the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills is home to several endangered varieties of wildlife. Unfortunately, the animals that were stolen this afternoon are among the rarest, and most treasured, in our live-animal collection. In fact, they were believed to be the last two surviving specimens of the blue-tongued mango vole.’ Here the handsome spokesman paused dramatically. Then: ‘The animals were being kept here in a specially climatized habitat, in the hope that they might breed and keep the species alive. Tragically, that dream came to an end this afternoon.’
‘Mango voles!’ exclaimed Jason Whelper. ‘Dad, did you hear? Maybe that’s what landed in our car. Maybe those guys in the pickup truck were the crooks!’
Terry Whelper took his son by the arm and led him back toward the tram, away from the tourist crowd. Gerri and Jennifer followed steadfastly.
Gerri whispered to her husband: ‘What do you think? Maybe Jason is right.’
‘I don’t know what to think. You were the one you wanted to come to Florida.’
Jason cut in: ‘Dad, there was only two of those mangos left in the whole-wide world. And we shot one!’
‘No, we didn’t. The policeman did.’
‘But we told him to!’
Terry Whelper said, ‘Be quiet, son. We didn’t know.’
‘Your father’s right,’ added Gerri. ‘How were we to know?’
Jennifer hugged her mother fiercely around the waist. ‘I’m so scared – can we drive to Epcot instead?’
‘Excellent idea,’ said Terry Whelper. Like a cavalry commander, he raised his right arm and cocked two fingers toward the parking lot. ‘Everybody back to the car.’

Native Tongue is just good fun, but it’s also an eye-opening read. After all, as the prefacing disclaimer reminds us, though the characters and events in the novel are purely fictitious, abberant sexual behaviour by dolphins is a documented fact.

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