Does comedy kill suspense? Not necessarily. As Hitchcock proved again and again, lighthearted touches can actually boost the chill factor. Funny writers of every variety — from whimsical Ross Thomas to mordant Charles Willeford, from farcical Donald E. Westlake to sardonic Reginald Hill — have managed to pull out the laughs while keeping things tense, mysterious, and even scary. Elmore Leonard, above all, has figured out how to ride close to the edge of absurdity, always pulling back in time to make us care what happens next.

And then there’s Carl Hiaasen, who delights in going over the edge, whatever the consequences. After collaborating with William D. Montalbano on a series of lively but conventional thrillers, Hiaasen — a reporter/columnist for the Miami Herald — set out on his own, apparently determined to outdo every writer (including Leonard) who ever turned a satirical eye on South Florida. The results so far have been impressive, if uneven. In his third solo effort, Skin Tight (1989), Hiaasen seemed for the first time to take full command of his boisterous talents: bizarre plot twists, grotesque characters, gonzo satire. Yet somehow the outlandishness never got in the way of the steady pace, the deepening fascination, or the genuine horror.

With Native Tongue, however, Hiaasen moves beyond outlandish into sheer cartoon. The setting is North Key Largo, where a vile real estate developer named Francis Kingsbury has gone into cut-rate competition with Disney World by setting up the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills, a giddy melange of bogus animal acts, dangerous rides, and vulgar pageants. Worse yet, Kingsbury plans to uglify pristine Key Largo land with a golf-condo project. But don’t worry. Rich, elderly Molly McNamara, head of the Mothers of Wilderness, vows to stop Kingsbury in his tracks. And Molly eventually joins forces with the book’s uninspiring hero: ex-newsman Joe Winder, a PR hack for the Amazing Kingdom.

Hiaasen smartens up this one-dimensional scenario with a few intriguing wrinkles, like the Mafia secret in Kingsbury’s past. But the only smidgen of mystery here — how did the Amazing Kingdom’s resident zoologist wind up inside Orky the Killer Whale? — gets solved early on. So the novel is filled out with quirkiness for its own sake and mindlessly escalating mayhem. Miss Molly, an eccentric, shoots her hired help in their extremities when they annoy her. Kingsbury’s chief henchman — a psychotic bodybuilder — mainlines steroids from a portable IV unit and thinks nothing of chewing off his own foot. Winder’s girlfriend is a phone-sex operator with literary pretensions (a gag that soon runs dry); his guardian angel is a homicidal hermit known as Skink — Hiaasen fans will remember him from Double Whammy (1988) — who was governor of Florida back in the 1970s. You get the idea.

Even when the comedy is downright juvenile, Hiaasen is still such a strong writer — fat-free narration, all-natural dialogue-that the silliness goes down easy. And though the antidevelopment satire seems a little stale, the send-ups of the PR biz are right on target. Don’t expect any thrills, then: This time the comedy does kill suspense. But if you’ll settle for local color gone wild, with lots of corpses but no real blood, Hiaasen’s Florida loony tunes may deliver some giddy, raucous entertainment. B

Native Tongue
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