strip teaseA Happy/Sad Book – Beautiful, Sordid, and Ultimately Hilarious

Author: Carl Hiaasen

Jumbled between the sleaze of lust-filled nightlife, the complexity of crooked law, the humanity of family, and the all out-bizarre, darkly sardonic tongue-and-cheek world of Floridian Carl Hiaasen, Strip Tease is one his most ambitious and chaotically consuming novels yet. Forced from her job at the FBI by a drug-dealing, wheelchair steeling, psychotic ex-husband, Erin Grant has taken up work at The Eager Beaver a shady strip-joint that helps her pay the excessive lawyer bills for the seemingly never ending custody battle for her daughter. Determined to do what it takes (and take off all that it takes), Erin’s job backfires when her supposedly law informant husband gets a crooked fundamentalist judge to condemn Erin as an unfit mother. The battle is on.

Meanwhile, it’s election year and an illustrious, dull-witted, lusty Congressman by the name Dilbeck is skulking, poorly disguised, around the city’s best strip joints, including The Eager Beaver. When a raucous bachelor party gone bad results in a surreptitious photograph and a blood curdling result, Mr. Peepers, Erin’s biggest fan, sees an opportunity to gain the love of the bar’s most virtuous stripper by reuniting her with her daughter via blackmail and influence over an inebriated, stripper-struck congressman.  When a professional fixer is added into the mix, the scheme goes south fast and the body count begins to increase. Are Erin and her daughter now at risk?

Erin’s psycho ex-husband, Daryl, meanwhile, is feeling the burn and planning some serious revenge against his past lady love. If she regains custody of their daughter, or influences her in any way, Daryl’s wheelchair purloining business will be seriously at risk. Daryl decides it’s time to enlist the help of his sister, Rita, who breeds wolf-dogs from her double-wide.

Against all of this background of intrigue and craziness is Shad, the beleaguered bouncer, who has lost his interest in nudity after working at a strip club for so long. Horrified by this tragedy, he’s trying to find the greatest scheme ever to launch him into a new life where naked women will once again be a joy. What’s the scheme? Well, I’m not giving it away, but let’s just say that it involves a dead cockroach, a surgical scalpel, and a seemingly untouched, just bought blueberry yogurt. It will be the lawsuit of the century – as long as he can keep his evidence safely tucked away.

With unabated wit and mocking seriousness, Strip Tease is an epically large and winding Hiaasen offering, relying on coincidence, cleverness, and amplified satire. Hiaasen is respectful of the strippers, especially Erin, who are depicted as  virtuous hard working gals with good-hearted natures and a much loathed schedule of nude wresting in the pasta pit. Throughout, the quirky factor is vividly, hilariously alive. Anything can happen in a day, between talking to homicide cop while wearing a G-string, sabotaging the neighboring strip joint, Flesh Farm, or listening to the boss’s undeniably fake, and lamentable glowing assertions that he’s in the mob. Add to the slew of powerful female characters Shad, the brutal bouncer with a surprisingly kind heart, and you have a weird little mish-mash of hijinks making fun of everything from politics to sex to the law to you know, doublewides. The really weird thing: it’s Hiaasen, so it all somehow works and while we love to laugh along, it’s also quite serious, plot driven, and powerful. Only Hiaasen could take a story so kooky, so grisly, so strangely sexy, and so – well – enticing that readers  believe, immensely, in everything happening to and directed by our sympathetic heroine, Erin.

Not one to let a novel get by without some pot-shots at both the powers that be, and the generally lamentable character of Florida with its wolf-dogs, double-wides, crime, and crooked industry, Hiaasen makes his not-so-subtle point while at the same time creating villains so vivid that it’s eerily too real in a surrealistic, seriously messed-up way. Dilbeck is an exaggerated stereotype, yet remains completely recognizable as a person and chillingly real while at the same time leaving readers howling with his actions and statements. Moldy, the fixer, is no less eerie, although certainly not fun. The straight man in a comedy of political errors, corruption, and murder, Moldy is the secret behind the bumbling institution and the instigator of Erin’s woes.

The story is big with a lot of different plot threads from the crazed ex-husband, to the devoted detective with no jurisdiction (Al Garcia), to the ex-con bouncer, to the neighboring strip club, to Erin’s daughter, to politics and Florida’s sugar cane industry. At first, it seems impossible that all of these elements could come together and readers hardly care, it’s just so entertaining and the world that is created is so real, we just enjoy being in it and dancing along to the tunes. As the narrative goes on, however, Hiaasen rewards our patience by tying the threads together into one long story concluding in a powerful scheme devised by Erin and some unlikely, although immensely enjoyable, revenge against the powers-that-be.

The audio-book version, expertly read by George Wilson, is sure to keep the spark of humor alive on those long morning commutes. Wilson’s shift in tone creates unique voices for each character, his reading style a natural extenuation of the story. He’s in the world and we’re there, in it with him, swaying to the beat and plotting revenge. It’s a happy/sad sort of book, beautiful and sordid and oh-so-human while being entertaining and, oddly, enlightening. Only Hiaasen could pull it off and once again, we love him for brightening this world a little more with his dark, dark humor.

–        Frances Carden


Frances Carden
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