I picked up this novel in Bright’s Little Bookshop a couple of weekends ago. I had never read any of Carl Hiaasen’s work before, but (shameless self-promotion ahead) when The Bellevue Literary Review compared my own short story to Hiaasen’s writing I was intrigued. Sick Puppy turned out to be a little different to what I expected (Hiaasen is much more focused on – and better at crafting – plot than I am, for example), but it was definitely a fun read.
Set in Florida (where Hiaasen is from) Sick Puppy is a sprawling novel, Dickensian in its cast of characters and just as busy when it comes to plot. It is a novel that doesn’t quit, and that, as James Hynes writes in this article for The Boston Review, “resists synopsis.” Put very simply, Sick Puppy is the story of wealthy eco-warrior Twilly Spree’s quest to encourage lobbyist Palmer Stoat to stop littering. Quite a lot of other things happen before, after, and in-between; many of them ridiculous, most of them very entertaining.
As Giles Foden notes in The Guardian, character is secondary to plot in Sick Puppy. This was something I struggled with at times, bouncing from point of view to point of view, never staying with anyone long enough to really connect with them. But the twisting narrative was enough to keep me engrossed, and there are some fantastic (if a little one dimensional) characters. For example, Mr Gash (Hiaasen has fantastic names for his characters), a sadistic hit man who enjoys listening to recordings of fatal 911 calls in his spare time.
There is something a bit Tom Robbins or Kurt Vonnegut about Carl Hiaasen’s writing – the environmental message, the crazy characters. But it’s not quite as good. Sick Puppy is ridiculous, but I wanted it to go further. Hiaasen lacks some poetry of language – the beautiful rolling metaphors of Robbins are absent, as is the very clever satire of Vonnegut. Hiaasen focuses on the thrill of the narrative, resulting in a book that, to me, feels a little tamer and easier to read, but a bit less memorable.
I also wondered, as James Hynes does, if the message in Sick Puppy is somewhat eclipsed by the medium. The environmental themes Hiaasen writes about are, in many ways, overshadowed and lessened by the cleverness of his plot. The characters are interesting, but they are quite black and white in terms of goodies and baddies. And there is not much serious consideration of the complex nature of environmental issues and the politics that convolute things. Then again, perhaps it is not meant to be that kind of book. In the end, the writing is good, and the narrative compelling. I’ll be keeping an eye out in little bookshops for more of Carl Hiaasen in future.
Sick Puppy was first published in 1999, and is Hiaasen’s eighth novel. Hiaasen started out as an investigative journalist for the Miami Herald. His other novels include Tourist Season, Strip Tease, and Lucky You.