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Onyx reviews: Nature Girl by Carl Hiaasen

When people talk about real estate cons involving swampland, Florida springs instantly to mind. The state is also a breeding ground for comedic crime writers. Miami Herald columnists Carl Hiassen and Dave Barry have both branched out as novelists.

Hiassen's novels—Nature Girl is his 11th—have several common elements. He is interested in quirky characters, ecological issues, con games, domestic discord and private investigators led astray during the course of their inquiries. Nature Girl has all of these, and more.

Two characters seek refuge in the natural maze that snakes among the Ten Thousand Islands west of Florida's Everglades. Sammy Tigertail, a mixed-race Seminole, is there because a tourist dropped dead aboard his airboat after being scared by a harmless snake. Sammy ditched the body in the swamp because he was afraid he would be accused of killing the tourist. Now he's hiding out on Dismal Key until the heat dies down. It's a reasonable assumption that no one will bother him on one of myriad tiny islets.

Reasonable, but wrong.

Single mother Honey Santana—the nature girl—has issues. She is borderline bipolar and a frequent writer of letters to the editor of the local newspapers—over a hundred have been published, many more rejected. When something gets under her skin she can't let go. She's been prescribed medication, but she doesn't take it. Her out-of-control behavior led to the end of her marriage. Her twelve-year-old son is wiser than she by far, but trying to keep Honey reined in is a daunting task even for an adult.

Telemarketers who call during mealtime are one of her flashpoint issues. A frustrated telephone salesman calls her a rude name after she takes him to task over his chosen profession. Honey makes it her mission in life to teach the reprobate a lesson in civility, which means she has to get him from Texas to Florida somehow.

The hapless telemarketer—who works for the appropriately named Relentless, Inc. until he's overheard uttering his unflattering opinion of Honey's character—is Boyd Shreave. He has more problems than Honey's vendetta. Unbeknownst to him, his wife has hired a detective to gather evidence he's cheating on her—which of course he is. The soon-to-be-ex Mrs. Shreave isn't content with the photographs the detective has already obtained. She wants the money shot—vivid shots of them doing the dirty deed. This puts the detective on the plane to Florida with Boyd and his reluctant concubine.

While Hiaasen has a reputation for satire and skewering high-profile targets, this time his victim is too easy. Few people will have any sympathy for a telemarketer, especially one as sleezy as Boyd Shreave.

Honey's scheme involves a fake ecotourism kayaking tour of the swamps, which puts her, Boyd, Boyd's mistress, and the detective on a collision course with Sammy, who already has his hands full with a volunteer hostage in the person of a sexy Florida State co-ed named Gillian St. Croix, who escapes from her idiot boyfriend during a party and thrusts herself into Sammy's arms.

Also on the trail is Honey's former boss, Louis Piejack, a smelly fishmonger whose family jewels she crushed with a meat hammer after he groped her at work. This encounter did nothing to dampen his ardor for Honey, and he's convinced he can work his magic on her if she only gave him the chance. Piejack had a recent run-in with some mobsters who dunked his hand in a tank of crabs, and an inept doctor replaced the fingers in the wrong order. Louis is the kind of twisted guy willing to explore the sexual possibilities of this new configuration.

Added to the growing list of people in the swamp on this fateful day are Honey's ex-con ex-husband and her recently concussed son, the victim of a collision between his skateboard and a pickup truck. They're concerned for Honey's safety, especially in light of her stalker.

And then, of course, there's the ghost of the dead tourist, who frequently appears to Sammy, begging to be buried in a nicer place to spend eternity. Hijinx ensue, all very improbable. People are shot, left for dead, kidnapped, released, tormented, and lectured. Honey firmly believes she can rehabilitate Boyd, all evidence to the contrary.

Things on Dismal Key get very confusing after a while, like a cross between a Shakespearean play and a French farce. Plausibility is cast to the wind. First one character and then another is tied up. People are stuck in trees and in cactus patches. Canoes are stolen; guns are lost and found again. Seductions are attempted and parried…or not. Hostages and captors switch places and roles. Readers may wish for a map to keep track of everyone's comings and goings.

Nature Girl is an entertaining romp of a ride, so long as readers check their brains at the door, engage their senses of humor, and ignore the ultimately meaningless game of manners that occupies the last seventy-five pages.

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