But no cause has engaged—or, for that matter, outraged—Hiaasen more than the plight of Florida’s Everglades, the fragile wetland ecosystem that once stretched across four million acres but has been reduced to half that size by farms and development. Backed by Florida governor Jeb Bush, the president’s brother, an $8 billion plan to restore the Everglades by rerouting a trillion gallons of water to it by the year 2006 seemed on track. Then, in late April, Florida legislators, apparently yielding to entreaties by sugar-industry lobbyists who oppose the plan, introduced legislation that would both weaken it and delay compliance with it by 20 years. In the past, Hiaasen has praised Bush (“He put a lot on the line”) for his support of the project, but as we went to press, the novelist feared the governor was waffling on the issue. “Overwhelmingly, from Key West to Tallahassee, voters have said saving the Everglades is not only a priority but a moral imperative. If it looks like the governor is caving, it’s going to be politically risky for him.”
As a novelist, Hiaasen’s strengths lie in memorable characters, unpredictable comedy and a crusader’s commitment to the environment. “To a great degree in Carl’s fiction,” says Sonny Mehta, president of Alfred A. Knopf and Hiaasen’s editor, “the villains are the people who have wrecked Eden—whether they’re developers, sugar plantation people or any of the carpetbaggers who have made a buck in the process of merchandising paradise.”
Says fellow satire novelist Christopher Buckley (No Way to Treat a First Lady): “Carl has been prophetic in his environmentalism. He’s also been hilarious—a comic Edward Abbey [the environmentalist-novelist]—which is some mean trick and a pretty cool perfecta at the literary dog track.”
Spend time on some of the Middle Keys—Upper Matecumbe, Lower Matecumbe, Islamorada—and you might run into Hiaasen. He shops at the all-night grocery on Islamorada and grabs a fish sandwich at the Hungry Tarpon on Lower Matecumbe. Padding around Hooked on Books, one of Islamorada’s bookstores, he looks like countless other “Keys fleas”—blue jeans, blue shirt, blue eyes, barefoot, tan. He’s lived here for a decade.
On a recent moonless night, he and his wife of four years, Fenia, were sleeping with the windows open. (The home they share with their son, 3-year-old Quinn, and Fenia’s son from an earlier marriage, 12-year-old Ryan, overlooks FloridaBay.) They could hear bottle-nosed dolphins frolicking in the waves just outside, spouting air through their blowholes. Another day, nine manatees swam up to their dock. “They are great, gentle things,” he says. Hiaasen called Fenia on her cell phone—she was out doing errands—and told her to buy up all the lettuce in the grocery store. He knows he’s not supposed to feed the manatees, but he did it anyway.