Tue
Mar 6 2012 10:30am

Fresh Meat: Chomp by Carl Hiaasen

Chomp by Carl HiaasenChomp by Carl Hiaasen is a kid-friendly crime novel that’s fun for adults, too (available March 27, 2012).

When Wahoo Cray’s animal-wrangler dad takes a job with a reality TV show called “Expedition Survival!”, Wahoo figures he’ll have to do a bit of wrangling himself—to keep his dad from killing Derek Badger, the show’s boneheaded star, before the shoot is over. Badger seems to actually believe his PR and insists on using wild animals for his stunts. And Wahoo’s acquired a shadow named Tuna—a girl who’s sporting a shiner courtesy of her old man and needs a place to hide out.

They’ve only been on location in the Everglades for a day before Derek gets bitten by a bat and goes missing in a storm. Search parties head out and promptly get lost themselves. And then Tuna’s dad shows up with a gun . . .

If you’ve never read a Carl Hiaasen novel, or heard of him at all, the first thing you should know is that his books are generally set in contemporary Florida, the author’s home. The second and more important thing you should know is that he’s one of the funniest writers around, of mysteries or otherwise, with a brilliant eye for all that’s quirky in both character and situation. His new novel is for younger readers, but I can attest it’s just as much fun for adults, and a worthy companion to Hoot, Flush, and Scat. (Those are other books he’s written for young readers that everyone should read.)

Hiaasen’s vividly satiric narrative style carries the book rapidly from point to point. Chomp opens like this:

Mickey Cray had been out of work ever since a dead iguana fell from a palm tree and hit him on the head. The iguana, which had died during a hard freeze, was stiff as a board and weighed seven and a half pounds. Mickey’s son had measured the lifeless lizard on a fishing scale, then packed it on ice with the turtle veggies, in the cooler behind the garage.

Mickey’s son, Wahoo, is the main point of view character, and he doesn’t see anything strange about anything that happens to him or to his family (or the fact that he’s named not for the Wahoo fish, but for a wrestler). It may seem strange to us, outside of the novel, but Hiaasen gradually stirs in more detail and the more detail he adds, the less wacky everything seems. Mickey’s seemingly bizarre accident has a perfectly reasonable explanation if you know all the facts.

Hundreds of iguanas had died and tumbled from the treetops during the big freeze in southern Florida. As far as Wahoo knew, his dad was the only person who’d been seriously hurt by one of the falling reptiles…Miami pet dealers had been importing baby specimens from the tropics for decades. The customers who bought them had no idea they would grow six feet long, eat all the flowers in the garden and then leap into the swimming pool to poop. When that rude reality set in, the unhappy owners would drive their pet lizards to the nearest park and set them free.

Mickey’s accident is also directly responsible for the family being desperate for cash, which leads the characters into the main plot, in which Mickey and Wahoo take a job as animal wranglers with a reality tv star who wants to take on the Everglades…and that’s when Hiaasen really rips his satirical gloves off.

After trying out a few different names—Erik Panther, 18 Gus Wolverine, Chad Condor—the producers settled on “Derek Badger” . . . He was so thrilled to be on television that he would have let them call him Danny the Dodo Bird.

. . . Every week, Derek would parachute into some gnarly wilderness teeming with fierce animals, venomous snakes and disease- carrying insects. Armed with only a Swiss army knife and a straw, he would hike, climb, crawl, paddle or swim back to civilization—or until he was “rescued.” Along the way, he’d eat bugs, rodents, worms, even the fungus on tree barks—the more gross it looked, the happier Derek Badger was to stuff it into his cheeks.

I’m not the biggest fan of reality shows, and I must admit I reveled in Derek Badger’s antics more than I did the actual mystery plot. He was, far and away, my favorite character, especially when in conflict with Mickey. Hiaasen’s journalistic background left its mark on the story, too, in that I almost believed the characters and the world he’d created were real. I didn’t need a winter trip to Florida—I got it from Chomp.


Victoria Janssen is the author of three erotic novels and numerous short stories. Her latest novel is The Duke and The Pirate Queen from Harlequin Spice. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.

Read all of Victoria Janssen’s posts for Criminal Element.

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