Nearly all of the dozens of Carl Hiaasen’s hugely popular satirical novels, young people’s stories, nonfiction books and column collections – mainly about political corruption and environmental despoliation in Florida – have been all too believably, even depressingly, topical. But by the evidence of the scabrous and unrelentingly hilarious “Squeeze Me,” the Trump era is truly Carl Hiaasen’s moment.
It’s as if Mastodon, as he is known here only by his Secret Service code name, had actually been hatched in Hiaasen’s febrile brain as one of his most farcically outlandish characters, and then in some “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”-like transmogrification, President Donald Trump actually turned up in real life – and now he is back in Hiaasen’s novel. (The POTUS here loves the Mastodon moniker and asks an agent to be taken to the zoo so he can see a real one.)
One unnerving aspect of “Squeeze Me” is that it’s set in postpandemic Palm Beach, Florida, and Trump is still president. It will be useful for any pro-Biden readers to view this not as pessimism on Hiaasen’s part but simply as some additional deeply mordant humor. Just dive in and have a wonderful time.
Lampooning the rich is a longtime American literary pastime, and no writer has been blessed with more fertile territory in that regard than Palm Beach. On the very first page, we meet Kiki Pew Fitzsimmons, of the “aerosol Pews” and one of the Trump-loving “Potussies,” a bevy of hard-drinking, bejeweled heiresses, who at a ball in POTUS’s honor serenade him with a song they made up, “Big Unimpeachable You.”
Poor Kiki misses that splendid event, however, because by then she has tipsily fallen into a pond during the Irritable Bowel Syndrome gala at Limpid House and been devoured by a 20-foot Burmese python. (Tens of thousands of these Asian creatures are actually on the loose in the Everglades, a result of the exotic pet craze in the 1980s and ’90s. They normally eat only smaller mammals, but apparently Kiki was too tempting to pass up.)
There’s a coverup, of course – bad for Palm Beach’s image – that eliminates the snake from the public scenario and has Kiki instead done in by a “terrorist,” an unlucky wrong-place/wrong-time Honduran asylum-seeker named Diego Beltran. Egged on by Mastodon, mobs outside his jail cell scream, “No more Diegos! No more Diegos!” Diego has become Mastodon’s “brown-skinned Fiend-of-the-Month.” It’s the one aspect of the novel that’s not all that funny.
Hiaasen can always be relied on to give readers a likable, decent-hearted, beset young female protagonist to fight for justice, and Angie Armstrong is great fun to follow around. A former park ranger who did jail time for assaulting a poacher, Angie runs a business called Discreet Captures, ridding homes and businesses of overdeveloped Florida’s many animal intruders.
Angie is called in to deal with the original python, as well as others that start turning up. Having figured out what’s really going on, Angie must obtain – and eventually coerce – the assistance of, among others, an honest local cop, the Secret Service and the first lady of the United States.
Code-named Mockingbird, Mastodon’s spouse is sympathetically portrayed. She finds pleasant distraction from her tedious duties and her ghastly husband in a raucous affair with a Secret Service agent named Keith Josephson. His real name is Ahmet Youssef; in passing, the clueless POTUS compliments his wife’s lover on the agent’s “nice tan.”
Hiaasen’s narrative wanders around a bit, but with all the lovingly biting detail, there isn’t a page that flags. Even the Palm Beach hi-so names are choice, like the section in Gatsby where the long list of his party guests is so funny and revealing. Kiki’s best friend is Fay Alex Riptoad of the “compost and iron ore Riptoads.”
Then there are the McMarmots, Tripp Teabull, Yirma Skyy Frick of the personal-lubricant Fricks and Kiki’s stepsons, Chase and Chance Cornbright.
Mastodon’s mansion/private club is Casa Bellicosa. Among the upcoming charity events threatened by the python scourge are the Psoriatic Gingivitis Gala and the Peyronie’s Syndrome Ball. Everybody’s artificially bronzed and cantilevered, and a crucial you-see-it-coming-and-can’t-wait plot point involves POTUS’s malfunctioning tanning bed.
Hiaasen’s old reliable deus ex machina character, much beloved by his fans – former Florida Gov. Clinton “Skink” Tyree – even shows up to help Angie provide Mastodon with a dose of his own bad medicine.
The crazy-sane environmentalist emerges from the swamps where he resides among the snakes and shows Angie the baby iguana recently hatched from an egg he incubated in his empty eye socket. That’s a joke, but is it any grosser or daffier than what the nation now witnesses daily on cable news?
Richard Lipez writes the Don Strachey PI novels under the name Richard Stevenson.