Leave it to satirist Carl Hiaasen to name the house band at Casa Bellicosa “The Collusionists.” Casa Bellicosa, a thinly disguised stand-in for Mar-a-Lago, is the Palm Beach setting at the center of Hiaasen’s new novel, Squeeze Me. With the book, Hiaasen returns to his favorite genre, the eco-crime caper, to eviscerate Donald Trump and champion Florida’s vanishing wetlands. To bring home his messages, he reprises two beloved characters, Skink and Jim Tile. They are angrier and cleverer than ever.
Some ways through the novel, Skink, a one-eyed, white former governor living on a remote island in the Everglades, poses a question to his best friend, Tile, a retired black state trooper. Skink wants to know if Tile is following the news. Has he noticed that America is being assaulted by a president who is “paranoid, draft-dodging, whore-hopping?” Tile says he’d thought Skink had long ago given up. “It’s no longer possible to look away and live with myself,” Skink replies. Of course, given that it’s Hiaasen writing, the serious answer is followed by a wink. Skink is micro-dosing. It’s helping him stay in the game.
Hiaasen has even more reason to be angry than the rest of us. In June 2018, a 30-year-old white man stormed the offices of the Capital Gazette, a newspaper in Annapolis, Md., shooting and killing five persons. Hiaasen’s brother, Rob, an editor and columnist, was among the dead. It is to his brother that Hiaasen dedicates Squeeze Me. “He spent his whole gifted career as a journalist,” Hiaasen wrote after the shooting, “and he believed profoundly in the craft and mission of serving the public’s right to know the news.” With Squeeze Me, Rob could not have hoped for a finer tribute.
Knowing the news and paying attention shape the fast-flowing current beneath Squeeze Me’s salty, scummy Florida scenery. Kiki Pew Fitzsimmons is an emaciated, twice-widowed socialite who is proud to call herself a founding member of the “Potussies,” a group of jewel-encrusted heiresses hanging onto the president’s every word. Kiki Pew goes missing from her estate, Lipid House, leaving behind only an evening bag, a martini glass, and half a tab of ecstasy. The president, who can sustain attention to nothing more than his corpulent, libidinous self, blames Diego Beltran, an undocumented Honduran, for Kiki Pew’s death, whipping his followers into an anti-immigrant frenzy. It’s up to Hiaasen’s main character, no-nonsense wildlife wrangler Angela Armstrong, to solve the mystery and set Diego free.
To conjure Angie, think of tiny, blond Kristen Bell cast as Dirty Harry. Angie was found guilty of feeding a poacher’s hand to an alligator. The hand had still been attached to the poacher at the time. Unable to carry a firearm as a convicted felon, she is not averse to using weapons other than guns, including machetes, to do her job. Of course, the creatures that Angie is hired to capture are never as dangerous as the dimwitted, dishonest humans she encounters. Following the news and paying attention, Angie quickly connects the missing Kiki Pew to the bulge in the middle of the enormous Burmese python she’s been called to remove.
Hiaasen relies in Squeeze Me on his tried-and-true recipe mixing comedic mayhem, references to pop culture, and dashes of political moralizing. The resulting satire can be silly, but it is mostly double-edged and as smart as ever. For example, Hiaasen names part one of the book after Aerosmith’s “Get a Grip,” the lyrics of which summon both Kiki Pew and the need for change: “Skin and bones, it ain’t such a pity” as well as “Same old same old every day/ If things don’t change you’re just gonna rot.” He borrows Alice Cooper’s “Muscle of Love” for part two — a reference in the song to neither hearts nor pythons.
There is a lot of graphic sex in the novel. Though parents and teachers may have been able to rely on Hiaasen to entice young readers with his young adult novels, they likely won’t find Squeeze Me appropriate for young readers. Older teens, meanwhile, may, while laughing, be persuaded by the kind of advice a hapless storage rental manager receives in the book. The manager admits he doesn’t read or vote. “It’s the bare minimum,” he’s told, “assuming you believe in democracy. Voting, reading, paying attention — those would be the fundamentals.”
Two details threw me off in Squeeze Me. Hiaasen casts Cape Cod as a northern corollary to Palm Beach, inhabited by badly behaved, extravagantly wealthy, country-clubbing yachters and golfers. A quick web search showed Hiaasen venturing no farther than Hyannis on a book tour; perhaps he needs to spend time on the Outer Cape for research?
The other troubling detail has to do with Hiaasen’s decision to set the book’s action post-pandemic. The implication, reading the book 74 days before the presidential election, is that the unfolding present includes another four years of the Trump administration. When Angie asks, “So what was the point? Why did you do all this?” I need more than Skink’s answer: “All I was hoping to do is stretch some goddamn minds.”