I confessed in a recent posting about my scattergun reading habits, which arise from my scattergun mind, and result in the scattergun nature of my tenuous hold on knowledge. Knows something about a lot of things, but nothing much about any one thing, might be a way of describing it.
This scattergunism, to coin a phrase, has been hard at work recently as I have been trying to read three books in tandem, all of them remarkable examples of written English, each if them outstanding in its particular genre, and together representing a diversity that I always find encouraging --- one by a Canadian, two by Americans, one a deeply serious political analysis, the others wildly successful bestselling mysteries or thrillers, and yet all if them dealing with serious subjects of social concern.
In the hope of making some progress through these books I have had to pull my horns in a bit and that has meant laying aside, I hope temporarily, the highly-praised, beautifully-written work, Paris 1919, published in 2001 by the Toronto professor Margaret MacMillan, about the treaty-making at the end of the First World War, an exercise in collected political wisdom that, in the opinion of many qualified experts, lead us all on inexorably into the horrors and massive death-dealing of the Second World War.
That brings me on to the two popular works by best-selling authors, Carl Hiaasen, and Don Winslow. Both have written what might be called mysteries, overlain with a comic bent: indeed, since I read my first of Hiaasen’s novels to cross my ken a few years ago, I have regarded him as a comic novelist of the calibre of the early Evelyn Waugh, who wrote his comic masterpieces in the late 1920s. That particular book, Sick Puppy, opens with a citizen following along in his car another car through whose window is being tossed the wrappers, bottles and containers being discarded as the driver eats his lunch. As a result Citizen No 1 follows the other man to his home, then goes back into town to buy a loaded garbage truck from the city workers, with which he returns to the citizen’s home and dumps the garbage over the offending car. That kicks the book off with a statement of intention that could hardly be misunderstood.
Similarly, this book that I have just read, Stormy Weather, was written three years after the 1992 Hurricane Andrew that devastated southern mainland Florida, destroying 28,000 homes and costing $15 billion in justified insurance claims. On page 119 of the book Hiaasen gives a succinct account of what drives him to make devastating fun of his home State while outlining the background of the character who undoubtedly lies at the centre of his work, a retired governor of Florida, Clint Tyree, who has transformed himself into a wild man of the wilderness, but one always avid for the improvement of affairs, and for destruction of the various phonies who are ruining things. Here is what he writes of this, quite evidently, his favourite character:
In his first post-election interview he told the New York Times that Florida was being destroyed by unbridled growth, over-development and pollution, and that the stinking root of all those evils was greed. By way of illustration he cited the Speaker of the Florida House for possessing “the ethics of an intestinal bacterium,” merely because the man had accepted a free trip to Bangkok from a Miami Beach high-rise developer. Later Tyree went on radio urging visitors and would-be residents to stay out of the Sunshine State for a few years, “so we can gather our senses.” He announced a goal of Negative Population Growth and proposed generous tax incentives for counties that significantly reduced human density. Tyree couldn't have caused more of an uproar had he been preaching satanism to pre-schoolers. The view that the governor was mentally unstable was reinforced by his refusal to accept bribes…”
When this former governor eventually emerges in the book as a character, having tied himself by rope to a high bridge in the hope of experiencing the worst the hurricane can do to him, he is called Skink, and has become a dishevelled, wild one-eyed man, carrying toads in his pockets to provide the raw material for the stuff he is smoking, and whose only permanent contact with the outside world is through Jim Tile, the black State trooper who once was his official guard, and who has since, in an act of huge obeisance before the man’s wisdom, accepted to continue his guardianship, never mind the effect it might have on his official job as a State trooper. Skink is regarded by everyone who runs across him as a complete lunatic, but he always somehow manages to disappear, and no one but Jim Tile knows where he is to be found. What the usual official overlooks is that the former governor is a highly intelligent man whose actions are all based on the deep intensity of his violated concern for the Earth.
The hurricane of course is immediately followed by an invasion from outsiders of every known crooked tendency: crooked building contractors, momentarily concerned that their misdeeds may become known through the scores of their buildings that have simply been blown to smithereens; crooked building inspectors, roaming on the lookout for places they know they approved without so much as looking at them, and just hoping for a chance to add to their miscreancy; crooked, or just fly-by-night roofing contractors on the lookout for a huge increase in their business, if only they can find owners distressed enough to accept their phony offers of reconstruction at grossly inflated prices; and just a floating assemblage of petty crooks looking for homes that appear to have been almost totally destroyed but temporarily abandoned by their owners, leaving the possibility that with a bit of luck they themselves might be able to persuade rambling insurance adjusters to make a quick settlement with them, believing them to be the owners.
The cast he has assembled for this 384-page story is alive with actions so evil as to dismay everybody except Skink who has seen it all before, and knows what to expect. At one point about 80 pages before the end I thought Hiaasen had taken the story about as far as it could go, but he kept on at it, and I realized he had more lessons to deliver, lessons hinting at finding very occasionally the better side of human nature, and the possibility of some redemption.
One of the characters on whom Hiassen lavishes most contempt is a New York advertising man, Max, who had just arrived on his honeymoon with his wife Bonnie when the hurricane struck. Instead of empathizing with the victims, as Bonnie expected him to do, he raced off fiendishly with his camcorder to record all the misery he could find. One of the places that had been destroyed was a wild-life establishment of some kind, from which all manner of exotic animals were able to escape to roam the destroyed landscape. One of the monkeys snatched Max’s camcorder, and he chased off after it so voraciously as to lose contact with his wife, who was already having second thoughts about him. Skink captures the evil little sod and attaches to him an electrified dog collar sufficient to deliver severe enough jabs to keep the man under control. He decides he would like to meet the wife of this pest, eventually does so, and is immediately captivated by the open-minded Bonnie, who, providentially, is in the process of falling for the nephew of the man who had owned all the wild animals.
The drama ends when Bonnie is read a passage from Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, that came to her from Skink.
Once I thought that to be human was the highest aim a man could have, but I see now that it was meant to destroy me. Today I am proud to say that I am inhuman, that I belong not to men and governments, that I have nothing to do with creeds and principles, have nothing to do with the creaking machinery of humanity --- I belong to the Earth! I say that, lying on my pillow, and I can feel the horns sprouting from my temples.
So this is the testament of Skink, and the book ends with the enchanted Bonnie requesting her new lover to “take this rope. Tie me to the bridge,” in emulation of her new hero.
I saw Hiaasen recently interviewed on the BBC. He seems to be a man free of the normal ego that inflates the value that such as writers, actors, scientific geniuses automatically accept as their inborn right. This in spite of his 17 novels having been sold in 13 million copies and been translated into 34 languages. He is still working as a columnist for the Miami Herald, which provided his original bread and butter, and he said he could never leave Florida, for that is the world he knows, and nothing could tear him away from it.
This leaves me hardly any space to mention Don Winslow’s novel, The Dawn Patrol. It gives a detailed description of the surfer life around San Diego, California, centred on a remarkably charismatic character called Boone Daniels, a man who could have done almost anything he set his mind to, except for his intense attachment to the world of surfing. The little gang revolving around him is called The Dawn Patrol. They each have their own surfing name --- Hang Twelve, Dave the Love God, Johnny Banzai, High Tide, and, the lone woman, Sunny Day, a better surfer even than Boone, “her blond hair glows like sunshine, a force of nature, tall, long-legged, exactly what Brian Wilson meant when he wrote that he wished they could all be California girls.”
They have heard that a huge roller is on its way, out of Alaska, arriving in two days, that will give them the biggest, most dangerous ride of their careers. They are all preparing to greet it, the peak moment of their lives to date.
I am not someone who really takes to the self-glorification of surfers, whose primary pretence is usually that they are superior to non-surfers, and can exist without them. But Winslow’s description, from the inside, of this world is completely persuasive, and sounds authentic.
Another form of life is centred around San Diego: that is the importation of Mexican farm workers to harvest the crops, and the secretive, almost hidden activity that accompanies them. Of course, they are grossly underpaid. The moneyed people who bring them in also bring in a raft of children, just small kids, beautiful little Mexican kids, captured in Mexico and brought north, held under complete control and, when the time is ripe, offered as objects for the sexual gratification of the farm workers. This, also is called the Dawn Patrol, and is a hugely profitable business. Somehow one little kid breaks loose and Boone’s suspicions are aroused. He begins to follow it up: the denouement occurs simultaneously with the arrival of the big wave: the Dawn Patrol is ready, but without Boone, they remain immobile. He is occupied: there is something bigger than just surfing. In spite of every indication of danger to his own life and that of his surfing colleagues, he fearlessly pursues the criminals into the seaside scrub and forest in which the operation is hidden.
Eventually, Boone triumphs: and so does Mr Winslow, another man with 17 successful novels behind him, of which I feel confident in saying any of them would be worthwhile reading for any person with an interest in modern-day American life.
Those three or four of them I have read certainly fulfil that prescription.