THE MOST TREASURED MEMORIES from Carl Hiaasen’s idyllic southern Florida youth are little more than just that these days: the run of bass in pristine streams, the vast expanses of saw grass and cypress hammocks—all vanishing with the driving wind of development.
“Everyone has gone back to a place that they remember from childhood and seen an apartment complex or a K mart,” says Hiaasen, 38, a second-generation Floridian who lives three houses down from his family’s old place in Plantation, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale. “When I was growing up, we were on the edge of the Everglades. Now we’re in the middle of mall hell.”
But while most Floridians have become inured to the relentless march of condos and six-plexes, Hiaasen, most volubly, has not. In his twice-weekly column for The Miami Herald he lambasts the unbridled greed of local developers. And his just-published fourth novel, Native Tongue, is a scrappy fictional diatribe against forces that would pave over the wilderness.
The plots and characters in Hiaasen’s fiction lie in hilariously skewed proximity to reality. In 1986’s Tourist Season, a crazed newspaper columnist turns South Florida tourists into snacks for alligators. In Native Tongue, a brutish security guard meets his end in a dolphin tank while being mauled by an overly amorous cetacean. And Skink, a character in two of Hiaasen’s books, is a former governor of the state turned swamp dweller who subsists on road kill and wages a campaign of eco-terrorism. If it all seems a bit misanthropic, “I have seen very little that has happened in Florida to give me much faith in the human race,” Hiaasen says. “Somebody’s got to stand up and scream bloody murder.”
The inspiration for Skink dates from Hiaasen’s childhood friendship with Clyde Ingalls, a fishing and camping buddy in Plantation. “Clyde was angry about the war in Vietnam,” says Hiaasen. “He was angry about a lot of things. But he was particularly angry about the fact that every time we’d go out West, there’d be a new bulldozer doing something to some place we knew.”
At 17, the troubled boy committed suicide. Though Hiaasen’s antidevelopment fervor predated the tragedy, “You can’t have someone close to you die that young and not have it affect you,” he says.
Carl, the eldest of four children of a lawyer and a housewife, found his calling early on. “I learned to read off The Miami Herald sports pages,” he says, “and it occurred to me that writing had to be the greatest job in the world.”
Carl was 6 when his father gave him his first typewriter, and he soon learned to hunt and peck. At Plantation High School he started More Trash, an underground newsletter that he describes as “very irreverent, very cynical, which just happened to suit that unfortunate trait in my personality.” He enrolled at Emory University in Atlanta as an English major but switched to the University of Florida’s journalism program in 1972, then landed a reporter’s job in the city of Cocoa. Two and a half years later he accepted an offer from the Herald and soon became a member of its prizewinning investigative team, which exposed corruption and kept the heat on local fat cats.
Not surprisingly, Hiaasen, who has received threats from a handful of anonymous crazies, also draws flak from Florida’s political establishment. “I would be severely depressed if I thought the Chamber of Commerce liked my work,” he says.
Still, he worries for his wife, Connie, 39, whom he married while still in college, and his son, Scott, 20. Connie is just completing law school after a 12-year career in nursing; Scott is a journalism major at a Florida university—and his father’s favorite fishing partner. “Because we’re so close in age,” says Hiaasen, “a lot of times it feels more like we’re brothers.”
Yet it’s still too early to tell if Scott has inherited a full dose of his old man’s righteous indignation—or one of the elder Hiaasen’s favorite, no-nonsense prescriptions for a new and better world. “I always say I want a law passed that every developer who builds a [condominium] has to live there for five years, on the bottom floor next to the elevator shaft. Then,” says Hiaasen, “you’ll have the best damn developments you ever saw.”
MEG GRANT in Plantation