May 15, 2000 12:00 PM

Carl Hiaasen steers his 17-ft. skiff across Florida Bay as pelicans dive for fish and bonnethead sharks prowl beneath the clear surface. “Hey there, buddy,” Hiaasen, 47, croons to a giant loggerhead turtle paddling by in slow motion. Suddenly he spots a different beast: man. He stiffens and stares at a craft on the horizon. “Just look at that Jasper standing up on the bow of that boat while his buddy’s going full throttle,” he says. “All he’s gotta do is hit a log and Junior’s in the drink.” The very thought cheers him. “You don’t know what I’d pay,” he adds gleefully, “to see that happen.”

Actually, people pay Hiaasen to conjure scenes like that—and worse. He’s the bestselling author of eight deeply twisted and hilarious Florida-based mysteries, in which whodunit is always trumped by who gets it and how. In his latest salvo, Sick Puppy, a hit man who unwinds by listening to gruesome 911 tapes is crushed by a charging bulldozer. (His own last words, made from a cell phone, are later commemorated in the World’s Most Bloodcurdling Emergency Calls.) “There’s a Ph.D. dissertation in all the ways Carl creates to seek revenge on people,” says Tom Fiedler, editorial pages editor of The Miami Herald, home to Hiaasen’s twice-weekly muckraking column. “They just come to me,” says Hiaasen of his emphatic retributions, including a steroid-addled bad guy romanced to death by a dolphin named Dickie. “But it’s not gratuitous, it’s poetic. The guys who get it richly deserve it, and it’s very satisfying to me.”

And to fans in 24 countries—among them Bill Clinton, Toni Morrison and Tom Wolfe. The alternative group Sonic Youth wrote the tune “Skink” to honor one of Hiaasen’s crazier characters, and rocker Warren Zevon collaborated with him on “Rottweiler Blues” and “Seminole Bingo.” Demi Moore not only starred in the film version of Hiaasen’s book Strip Tease but rewarded the shy guy with a nude movie poster of herself, signed, “Carl, without you I would be nothing.” One fan got too close for comfort, showing up at his door in the night. “A drunk and stoned fishing guide, announcing he’d been a big-time marijuana smuggler and wanted me to write a book about him,” says Hiaasen, who was prompted to install an iron gate at his waterfront home. “I said, ‘Gee, a marijuana smuggler in the Florida Keys. Imagine that!’ ”

In Hiaasen’s depraved comic operas, the good guys—often driven mad by rapacious builders, crooked politicians and litterbugs—are only slightly less bent than the bad guys. Sick Puppy’s hero, Twilly Spree, is an ecoterrorist with anger-management issues. He stalks a lobbyist and kidnaps both his trophy wife and Labrador retriever to stop a developer from despoiling a barrier island. His sidekick is the famed Skink, an idealistic, one-eyed ex-governor who lives in the swamp and savors road-kill. “All I ever ask of my main characters is that their hearts are in the right place, that when they step over the law it’s for a higher cause,” Hiaasen says. “Skink says to Twilly, ‘People like you and me are going to be angry all our lives, but it’s the only reason things change.’ I believe that.”

The anger is personal. Hiaasen, a third-generation Floridian, grew up in Plantation, then a rural suburb of Fort Lauderdale. At 4, he was reading The Herald’s sports page to his parents, the late Odel, a lawyer, and Patricia, 72, a homemaker, who reared him and his three younger siblings. At 6, tapping out sports stories on a manual typewriter, a gift from his father, Hiaasen knew he wanted to be a writer. But Hiaasen was no indoor boy. He haunted the nearby Everglades, where he communed with alligators, fished for bass and hunted water moccasins. When he was 13 he sent away for a squirrel monkey that he kept in his room. “I asked him if I could pet it,” recalls his brother Rob, 41, a Baltimore Sun writer. “He got this half-smile and said, ‘Yes, Robby, go ahead and pet it, it won’t bite.’ It bit the hell out of me!” Carl laughs at the memory. “In conflicts between man and nature,” he deadpans, “I always side with nature.”

Even as a boy, Hiaasen fought encroaching development by enlisting pals to help him pull up surveyor’s stakes. “We didn’t know what else to do—we were little, and the bulldozers were big,” he told Diane Stevenson, a University of Florida professor who has compiled a new book, Kick Ass: Selected Columns of Carl Hiaasen. His dirt-bike path to the swamp is now a highway lined with nine malls.

Age only sharpened his subversive streak. At Plantation High he put out More Trash, an underground paper satirizing the principal and the jocks. After two years at Atlanta’s Emory University, he transferred to the University of Florida’s journalism school in 1972. He had already married his high school sweetheart, Connie, and had son Scott, now 28 and a reporter for The Palm Beach Post. (The couple divorced in 1996.) In 1976, Hiaasen, then 23, was hired by The Herald and began winning awards for his investigations. One project was credited with saving 26 miles of North Key Largo ocean-front from development.

In 1985 he turned to column writing. Hiaasen’s mordant rants against those who violate the public trust—he called one pol “a pernicious little ferret” and another a “backslapping, ribbon-snipping blob”—provide endless fodder for his fiction. “He’s the voice of every person who is fed up with pompous politicians and corruption, who hates to see Florida raped and pillaged,” says Fiedler. “Even those who are having their throats slit read every word.”

But they rarely complain. “They have a deep fear of being put in another column,” Hiaasen says, “or worse, in a book.” Bill Cullom, the upbeat Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce president, says he’s a big fan, though he adds dolefully, “In one book a character with my job is murdered, and I think he had me in mind.” (“He wishes!” Hiaasen says.)

Cullom’s reference is to Hiaasen’s first novel, a state promoter’s nightmare called Tourist Season, in which the Chamber president gags to death on a rubber alligator, the Orange Bowl queen is kidnapped, and a retiree is fed to a crocodile. Hiaasen wrote the 1986 book in a frenzy of late nights and weekends. “I wanted to just go gonzo,” he says.

Hiaasen’s pals insist the author is courtly and tender, nothing like his macabre creations. “I don’t know anyone who dislikes Carl,” says Jim Savage, The Herald’s investigations editor. “He’s very humble, and his humor is kind of innocent.” If odd. “He’s inordinately fond of wildlife—not good wildlife, really bad wildlife,” says humorist and Herald colleague Dave Barry. “He once gave me and my wife an egg as a gift. We knew it wouldn’t produce something nice, like a chicken. He said, ‘You definitely want to get a strong cage before it hatches.’ ” (The iguana egg failed to hatch, but Hiaasen graciously offered to replace it.)

Their testimonials come with a caveat. “Behind the wheel of a car,” says Savage, “he’s homicidal.” Fenia, his wife of 17 months, found that out before the two began dating in 1998. They met in a local beachfront restaurant that Fenia, 33, managed. He was smitten by “the magic” between the single mother and her son Ryan, 9, but hadn’t worked up the nerve to ask her out. “He was always a gentleman,” she says. One day, stopped in her car at a bridge with Ryan, she didn’t notice that traffic had begun to move. “In my rearview mirror there’s this guy yelling, and his hands are flying up in the air,” says Fenia, adding that she was stunned to discover the road rager was ” that quiet Carl Hiaasen guy who comes into the restaurant every night and hides behind his New Yorker.”

Fortunately for motorists, Hiaasen writes from the three-bedroom stilt home in Islamorada he shares with Fenia, Ryan and the newest family member, 3-month-old Quinn. “I fish and I write,” says Hiaasen, whose skiff is at his dock. “If I don’t write and I don’t fish, I’m a big pain in the ass.”

On most days, he does both. But he is no more forbearing behind the wheel of a boat. After fantasizing about “Junior” being dumped in the bay by his heavy-throttled buddy, Hiaasen spots a boater he deems too near a mangrove island. He sets off in pursuit. “I won’t yell, I promise,” Hiaasen says. “I’ve mellowed.”

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