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"You can't be a happy newspaper columnist, you can't be Erma Bombeck," Carl Hiaasen insists, stabbing the air with a forkful of grouper as he lays out the tenets of Journalism 101 over lunch. "All of my best work comes from some kind of anger. If you go up to Jimmy Breslin, he's as pissed off today as he was 30 years ago. That's the fire you want to have in your writing."
At the moment though, it's difficult to see just what's inspiring all of Hiaasen's raging against the machine. In faded jeans, polo shirt, and sandals, with his tanned, boyish good looks belying his 51 years, Hiaasen hardly evokes the aura of the grizzled, ink-stained reporter. And while he may fill his weekly Miami Herald columns with rants against the suburban sprawl that has overtaken his native Plantation in Broward County, and which now encroaches on the Everglades, those creeping condos and strip malls seem a world away from this Islamorada waterfront restaurant.
As U.S. 1 south from Miami approaches his secluded home in the Keys, the bikini shops and tourist motels drop away, replaced by breathtaking panoramas -- just sun-dappled whitecaps stretching to the horizon on either side. It takes a fair amount of concentration to keep from getting lost in it all and driving right off the Overseas Highway into the ocean. It's an idyllic mood Hiaasen himself has come to treasure whenever he pilots his flats boat from his private dock and zips across the water for a round of bonefishing: "It clears your brain of everything, it recharges you."
Hiaasen's career seems similarly beatific these days. Already a fixture on the bestseller lists with his comical tales of rapacious developers and crooked pols running wild in South Florida, his tenth novel, Skinny Dip, is gaining notice far beyond the aficionados of crime thrillers who are sure to be out in force for his reading this Saturday at the Miami Book Fair International. Indeed, the New York Times may have panned the latest offerings from the once-mighty John Updike and Tom Wolfe, but with Skinny Dip it saluted the arrival of "a screwball delight so full of bright, deft, beautifully honed humor that it places Mr. Hiaasen in the company of Preston Sturges, Woody Allen, and S.J. Perelman."
Director Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Angels in America) has already secured Skinny Dip's film rights, while Hoot (Hiaasen's equally successful 2003 foray into children's books) is in preproduction for the big screen with Penny Marshall and good friend Jimmy Buffet coproducing.
"Hollywood," Hiaasen chuckles, shaking his head as Kulchur presses for details. "My agent gave me great advice years ago: It's all found money. Don't even think about it."
Best-selling novelist, award-winning children's author, Hollywood darling -- does he ever grow weary of banging out his column in the midst of it all? As a Herald reporter since 1976, and a regular columnist since 1985, he's certainly earned a break. Even Jimmy Breslin, pissed off or not, has announced his retirement from the daily-paper grind.
"Sure, I could melt into a family mode and crank out these novels every couple of years, just watch my kids grow up," Hiaasen muses. "I could travel, do things my wife wants to do. Some days that sounds pretty good." He pauses, his eyes briefly glazing over before snapping back into focus: "But I wouldn't be happy, I know I wouldn't be happy. Just being aware that something wrong was spinning out of control -- there are very few voices to say, öHey, wait a minute!' If you can draw a little bit of attention with a column, put a stop sign up, make somebody cringe who's got their finger in the pie -- you might lose nine out of ten times, but the one you win, the one time regular folks and citizens have their voices count, it keeps you going."
That should be dispiriting news to Miami's ever-colorful cast of politicians, for whom Hiaasen has equally colorful monikers. Maurice Ferré, who during his 1973-85 tenure as mayor of Miami never found an ethnic group he wasn't eager to pander to, constituted "a veritable slag heap of mediocrity." Ex-Miami City Commissioner Humberto Hernandez, who was re-elected while facing federal criminal charges of bank fraud and money laundering, and who would later be convicted of voter fraud, was a "pernicious little ferret."
And then there's Xavier Suarez, whose 111-day return to city hall ended in 1998 after the courts found that his election victory had been irredeemably tainted by fraud, including ballots cast by dead men. After watching Suarez erupt into public crying jags, dismiss a $68 million budget deficit as imaginary, and appear outside the Herald's own offices in his bathrobe early one morning, searching for a copy of Hiaasen's latest column, there was only one nickname suitable for Hizzoner: "Mayor Loco."
"Another chaotic week ends," Hiaasen wrote at the time, "leaving Miamians to wonder how long before the white-suited men with butterfly nets come to take the mayor away." A subsequent libel suit brought by Suarez was dismissed, enshrining him as Miami's first ex-mayor who can legally be described as insane.