If you think Carl Hiaasen would not be caught dead watching reality TV, you’d be wrong. Very wrong.
"I actually became sort of saturated in reality TV," said Hiaasen, whose latest novel for young readers, Chomp (Knopf, $16.99, ages 10-up), required he take in as much phony "wilderness survival"-type television as possible. "It’s great comedy, though it helps to watch it with the right company, like my sixth-grade son. That way you can point out that these guys who are out there in the wild, allegedly by themselves, at the very least have a pretty big camera crew with them."
Like his three previous novels for the middle school set – Hoot, Flush, and Scat – Chomp is a satire, written for kids who don’t find much funnier than the nonsensical ways in which grownups behave.
Hiaasen, who’s been on a two-week tour that took him to Chicago, Denver, Washington, D.C., New York, and New Jersey, returns home for an April 15 appearance in Coral Gables. Presumably, no one in South Florida will ask questions like the ones he gets in Skokie and Princeton, along the lines of, "How do you come up with this stuff?" In one scene in Chomp, wranglers capture a Burmese python while it’s eating an opossum in a Dumpster behind the Dadeland Mall.
"When I go out-of-state, I carry clippings from The Herald," Hiaasen said. "If anybody doubts the verisimilitude of what I’ve written, I just read them a few headlines from The Herald."
Indeed, the wackiness of real life in South Florida continues to inspire Hiaasen, who named his main character, Wahoo Cray, after a favorite former Miami Dolphin, linebacker Wahoo McDaniel. "I always loved that name, although I did wonder if his parents named him after the fish or after some noise he made."
Prompted by impending foreclosure, Wahoo’s dad Mickey, an animal wrangler who specializes in whispering to snakes and gators, reluctantly agrees to help the crew of Expedition Survival! film an episode in the Everglades. But what starts out as an annoying, if lucrative, gig turns into true survival adventure because of the stupidity of the dimwitted show host, Derek Badger, ho insists on using real wild animals in his scenes. The plot’s considerable tension derives from ondering how Badger will die: at the hands of one of the Everglades’ lethal denizens, or with Mickey Cray’s hands around his neck?
Of course, this is Hiaasen, so fans can probably guess that the story is also truly funny. He may recycle odd items from the headlines, but he does it with flair. And any hope that he’s done with snakes after the January 2010 freeze reduced their numbers underestimates both his writerly imagination and his continually replenishing font of you-can’t-make-this-up material.
"Given given my odd fan base, I get a lot of pictures from people that show large reptiles eating things all the time, and it looks like the pythons are rebounding," he said. "I don’t think they’ll be found too far north because they don’t like the cold, but I think an infestation in Orlando is a real possibility, and there’s all kinds of poetry in that."