Review: Florida provides plenty fodder for famed columnist Carl Hiaasen

DANCE OF THE REPTILES: Selected Columns. By Carl Hiaasen. Vintage Original. 400 pages. $15.95.

In "Dance of Reptiles," his third collection of muckraking columns, Carl Hiaasen again demonstrates that the greatest deficits are not on the state or national balance sheets, but in the heads of our elected leaders (and those who manipulate them).

There's no mystery where the Miami Herald columnist gets his material. It's the same source he mines for his satiric novels: those confounding conundrums of real life we call the News. His principal turf is Florida, but it is clear that those he skewers also operate on a broader stage. Hiaasen, a fourth-generation Floridian, assails what a complex of corruption, greed and stupidity has wrought in the Sunshine State - and the nation.

Through more than 35 years of reportage and column writing, Hiaasen has used his chief weapons - the facts, and an eviscerating sarcasm - to blow the whistle on big business, inept governance, slipshod developers, and a host of other targets richly deserving a comeuppance.

From unrestrained growth to capital punishment, from Medicare fraud to the assisted living industry, from attempts to gut the EPA and Endangered Species Act to the continued bungling of the Army Corps of Engineers (between 1993 and 2003, the ACE approved 12,000 wetlands destruction permits in Florida. The number rejected: none).

Also is his wheelhouse: the folly of offshore oil drilling, the influence peddling of corporate lobbyists, consumerist profligacy, the absurdities of "Intelligent Design," manipulated elections, legislative complicity in Big Agriculture's exploitation of migrant workers, mortgage scams, unconscionable corporate welfare, willful miscarriages of justice, Vatican stonewalling on child sexual abuse, the NRA's disproportionate power, the Iraq/Afghanistan debacle, hyperventilating televangelists, a sensationalistic news media, abortion clinic bombers and the misguided drive to "get government off our backs."

Hiaasen's home state, he avers, is the emblem of a nation's fiscal disintegration. Its economy (apart from such supporting players as orange juice, vegetables and cattle) is so tied to the housing market that any decrease in population growth turns it into a house of cards.

Florida remains a Mecca for scams and official malfeasance. The state always has attracted con artists and a bizarre array of loonies. But until the Great Recession, Florida kept its economic Ponzi scheme afloat by luring in a steady stream of new residents from parts far and wide. With predictable results: spiking crime, rampant over-development, environmental degradation and a rogue's gallery of politicians cavorting in a theater of the absurd.

Hiaasen makes this parade of idiocy and avarice palatable with a kind of gallows humor. The more appalling the situation, the greater the potential for hilarity. Yet on occasion the author wields ridicule more like a bludgeon than a rapier. Sometimes Hiaasen succumbs to shooting fish in a barrel. Sometimes he belabors the obvious, or comes across as a knee-jerk ideologue. But these missteps are few. Hiaasen invariably dispenses blame or credit where it is due. He is not so much stridently liberal as steadfastly sensible, his wit girded by palpable anger.

His reptiles don't dance, they squirm.

Reviewer Bill Thompson is a writer and editor based in Charleston.