Friday, October 31, 2014

Return of the Swamp Zombie: Skink--No Surrender by Carl Hiaasen

No more than three inches of the straw was exposed from the sand, but that was enough to pinch between my fingers. When I pulled it out of the mound, the in-and-out noise stopped.

But then, as I was peering at the spot where the soda straw had been in the sand, the turtle nest basically exploded. A full-grown man shot upright in a spray of sand. Built like a grizzly, he was coughing and swearing and spitting through a long, caked beard. On his head he wore (I swear) a flowered plastic shower cap. Even weirder, his left eye and right eye were pointed in different directions.

I vaulted back over the ribbon. After catching my breath, I asked, "What are you doing here?"

"Gagging, thanks to you."

"Dude, you can't sleep in a turtle nest!" I shouted.

In Carl Hiaasen's latest young adult novel, Skink--No Surrender (Alfred A. Knopf Books, 2014), fourteen-year-old Richard is introduced to one of Carl Hiaasen's iconic characters, swamp hermit Skink, former Vietnam vet and Florida governor, whose mission has become, to put it politely, avenging ecological transgressions. Sleeping concealed in a fake turtle nest to catch illegal egg pillagers, Skink's repose is interrupted by Richard on a round of nest inspections near his home.

Richard has been walking the beach, worrying about his cousin and best friend Malley, who apparently has disappeared impulsively on the way to boarding school in New Hampshire ("I don't do cold!") and whom Richard suspects has run away with an unsavory Instagram stalker who calls himself Talbo Chock, a name which a bit of googling turns out to be the stolen identity of a Marine killed in Afghanistan.

When Malley finally calls him, she tells Richard she's with a "friend," T.C., waiting for a drawbridge to open. Richard hears a ship's horn in the background and infers that she is somewhere along the Florida panhandle coast, and, telling his mother he's gone camping with a friend, heads off toward the nearest place with a drawbridge on a broad bay, the estuary of the Chocktawhatchee River. Along the way he meets up again with Skink, on the same mission. Combining forces, they determine that T.C. is holding Malley prisoner somewhere up the alligator and wild boar-infested river on a dilapidated rented houseboat, and the unlikely pair of rescuers set out behind them in a "borrowed" canoe.

Then when their beached canoe is washed down river in a flash flood, Skink dives in to catch it and is presumably pulled under by an eight-foot alligator. Horrified, Richard nevertheless resolves to continue on foot up river to free his cousin, where he discovers the houseboat anchored up a tributary creek with his cousin handcuffed to the wheel. Richard realizes that Malley's salvation is up to him alone.

But he reckons without the legendary recuperative powers of Hiaasen's iconic Skink, who survives having his foot run over by a truck while rescuing a baby turtle, a mauling by a giant 'gator, and being shot by T.C. along the way to a timely conclusion for their quest, and in a page-turning and well-deserved denouement, Richard and Malley reunite with him ("It's the Youth of America!" quips Skink) in time to see T. C. meet justice in the jaws of that same grandaddy 'gator. Although set in the familiar format of his young adult and adult eco-thrillers, Hiaasen makes use the motif of the iconic shaman and his fatherless apprentice in a modern morality play, complete with the sage mentor's totem, in this case the believed-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker which appears to Richard and Malley as the symbol of Hiaasen's perpetual theme, the hoped-for survival of Florida's native creatures and environment.

Hiaasen, who won Newbery honors for his first eco-thriller for young readers, Hoot, followed by its noted companion books, Flush, Scat, and Chomp (see my reviews here), sets all of his books in the abused but resilient Florida landscape, with humor and strong male and female characters on a cockeyed but riveting moral quest to right a wrong, personal and ecological. For reluctant readers (which many teens are), Hiaasen's newest work, a 2014 National Book Award nominee,  has it all--recognizable kid characters and the usual Florida suspects (here played by the revoltingly dead-gar-smelling brothers, "Nickel" and "Dime"), sharp wit, and a fast pace through one of the sort of all-out missions of justice that hold young readers fast.

Classic Hiaasen in all its glory! "It's a quintessentially Hiaasen romp for a younger set, combining a message of taking care of the world with suspense, humor, a generous helping of Florida wildlife and much heart," writes the New York Times reviewer.

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