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Sick Puppy

Carl Hiaasen's novel Sick Puppy (1999) is both perfect entertainment and food for thought. The unique Hiaasen blend of humour and commitment to serious causes enables the readers to enjoy themselves in spite of, or frequently even due to, not only the presentation of a never-ending series of bizarre scenes but also the depiction of cruel acts of assault and murder. The underlying message is a thoroughly serious one though: the destruction of the natural environment, in Hiaasen's case Florida. The way the author treats this topic results in a book which is nothing to do with crime fiction proper.

Outline of the plot

The political establishment of Florida headed by governor Dick Artemus -- who heavily depends on capitalist entrepreneurs for re-election campaign donations -- want to open a new chapter in the destruction of Florida´s environment: They focus their attention on a small flat island which so far has escaped the developers' grasp: A number of projects were begun in the past, but there were always financial problems so that nothing came of them. Toad Island is still virtually untouched and ecologically intact. Accommodation is provided by a single small bed and breakfast[?]. There are only few local residents. As far as the animal kingdom is concerned, the island is inhabited by innumerable tiny toads with an orange stripe on their back. The island is connected with the mainland by an old wooden bridge.

Now Robert Clapley, large-scale drug smuggler turned real-estate developer, wants to invest the major part of his laundered money in a project that would turn Toad Island into Shearwater Island: Practically the whole island would be bulldozed and artificially rebuilt. The new island would include high-rise condominiums and, most prominently, a golf course. A new bridge would have to be built in order to enable trucks and, at a later point, tourists to get to the island safely. Palmer Stoat, middle-aged lobbyist and political problem fixer, a man oblivious of the beauty of natural surroundings, gets involved in the project when he is approached by Clapley.

Warning: Wikipedia contains spoilers

Stoat's life is severely disturbed when a young college dropout and millionaire called Twilly Spree is driving behind him on the highway and sees Stoat casually throwing rubbish out of his car window. Spree, who in the past has had problems keeping his anger in check, starts trailing Stoat, whom he does not know, in order to teach him a lesson -- any lesson. Spree follows Stoat right to the latter's home in Fort Lauderdale, where he waits until Stoat and his much younger wife Desirata have left. Then he breaks into the house to find out more about the man and about how he could best wreak vengeance on him for littering the environment. This is when Spree unexpectedly meets the Stoats' large black Labrador retriever called Boodle (renamed McGuinn by Spree). McGuinn turns out to be harmless though, and Spree has no difficulty searching the place. He is shocked to discover a wall full of animal trophies -- endangered animals Stoat has shot not in Africa, but in "canned hunts" organized by the Wilderness Veldt Plantation in Florida. He cuts out all their glass eyes and puts them on Stoat's desk, in the form of some geometrical figure. Later the dog swallows some of them, which makes him a "sick puppy".

Then Spree rents a truck full of garbage and dumps the whole truckload on Desirata Stoat's BMW, which is parked, with its deck open, in the parking lot of a restaurant. Some time later Stoat finds his own car full of dung beetles (which he mistakes for cockroaches). Still he does not learn his lesson; he does not realize the connexion between his "litterbug" behaviour and all the things that are being done to him, his wife and his property, and does not even think of changing his lifestyle. All he says is that it's a "sick world" -- which is exactly what the environmentalists (and ecoterrorists[?]) say, too. Eventually, his Labrador is abducted.

When Desirata meets Spree to get the dog back, two unforeseen things happen: (a) Spree learns all about the Shearwater Project, which he of course vehemently opposes; and (b) he and Desirata fall in love with each other. Desirata is impressed by Spree's commitment and enthusiasm[?]. She admits to herself that she married Stoat two years ago mainly for "security". Meanwhile, she has come to find a number of his activities rather repulsive. She demands of him that he stop the Shearwater Project, as this is Spree's condition for returning their dog. Stoat, who in his job is intent on keeping a low profile, cannot but assent to this demand, as he wants to avoid any press coverage of the whole affair. He can persuade Dick Artemus, the governor of Florida, to veto the new bridge and thus stop any form of activity on Toad Island, including bulldozing the area.

The governor's veto triggers a series of events no-one would have imagined. Although Stoat claims that the project has just been put on the backburner and will be greenlighted very soon, all the people who would profit by it are upset. Even Clapley's Swiss bankers phone him in the middle of the night to inquire what has gone wrong. Both he and Artemus come to the conclusion that it is necessary to get hold of the crazy extortionist, who sends the ear and the paw of a dead dog resembling McGuinn's to Stoat to make it absolutely clear how serious he is. Clapley puts his thug, or rather contract killer[?], Gash, on Spree´s track and assigns him to get rid of Spree.

Artemus, on the other hand, wants to avoid a scandal (and in particular any violent deaths in connexion with the Shearwater Project) and tries, and eventually manages, to flush out ex-governor Clinton Tyree, who vanished about 20 years ago after a short and unsuccessful term of office and is said to be hiding out somewhere in the remaining wilderness[?] of Florida. Artemus knows the only way to blackmail Clinton Tyree: Clinton's mentally disturbed brother Doyle is still on the governor's payroll as the keeper of a lighthouse that has not been in use for ages. With Lieutenant Jim Tile, an African American police officer, as go-between, Artemus contacts Clinton Tyree and makes him look for and capture Twilly Spree -- so that he can receive "professional help" (i e be put out of the way and into an asylum).

But Twilly Spree turns out to be rather elusive. He has been joined more or less permanently now by Desirata (and McGuinn). At one point in the novel, the couple visit Twilly´s mother with whom they spend a nice and peaceful day. The unusual thing about their visit is that while they are chatting and drinking iced tea on the verandah, Palmer Stoat is tied to a rocking chair next to them, with self-adhesive tape across his mouth and a pillowcase over his head -- a man who has still got his lesson to learn.

Both Gash and Clinton Tyree eventually turn up on Toad Island. Gash is the first to arrive, and he succeeds in overwhelming Twilly and Desirata. He shoots Twilly, who is seriously injured, leaving him lying in a pool of blood on the ground outside their car, and is just about to rape Desirata when he is playfully attacked by McGuinn, who humps him and does not let go of him. Gash does not manage to rape Desirata though because he cannot get an erection. This is when Clinton Tyree appears on the scene: He shoots Gash twice, first in the knee and then in the face. Finally he parks one of the bulldozers[?] on Gash´s legs and leaves him dying there. By means of a mobile phone the party can call a helicopter. They are rescued, and Twilly Spree is hospitalized.

When he has recovered from his injuries he checks out of the hospital and joins Clinton Tyree for a final attack on the land developers, politicians and lobbyists. Spree and Tyree have been tipped off about an informal meeting at the Wilderness Veldt Plantation where Artemus, Clapley, Stoat and Willie Vasquez-Washington, the vice-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, want to fix a deal that would eventually greenlight the Shearwater Project. Clapley has been promised by Stoat that at that meeting he would be able to shoot a "killer rhino" and get its horn, too -- to have it pulverized for use as an aphrodisiac. Spree and Tyree, with McGuinn in tow, are there, too, in camouflage clothes and adequately armed, secretly watching the members of the hunting party, considering their options but devoid of any real plan. Suddenly they realize that McGuinn has run off. When they see him again he is attacking the "killer rhino" -- in fact a very old, dying animal which, apart from breathing and chewing food, has hardly moved at all. When it is attacked by the harmless McGuinn, however, the rhino suddenly gets up and starts running around -- much faster than anyone, including the employees there, would ever have expected. Clapley and Stoat aim at the animal, which is running towards them, both rooted to the spot and following it with their guns, and eventually, after having made a half-turn each so that they are facing one another, accidentally shoot at each other. Before his death, Clapley is picked up by the rhinoceros and carried around on its horn, while Stoat is stamped to death. Poetic justice[?], or Nature knows very well how to get back at those who have harmed her.

Only few people show up at Palmer Stoat's funeral. Meanwhile, Twilly Spree and Clinton Tyree are driving along the highway towards the wilderness when they see another group of litterbugs throwing lighted cigarette butts, empty bottles and other rubbish out of their speeding car and onto the dry grass near the shoulder of the road. They do not really hesitate and immediately decide to teach them a lesson. --

There are a number of subplots[?] in the novel. For example, there is Robert Clapley's involvement with Katya and Tish, two girls from former Eastern bloc countries whom Clapley, obsessed with Barbie dolls, wants to turn into live twin Barbies by means of multiple plastic surgery. The girls, who are really prostitutes, indiscriminately take any drugs they can get hold of, but are especially keen on "rhino dust". This is why, as a favour making up for the problems he has caused him with the Shearwater Project, Stoat supplies Clapley with the rhino and the prospect of getting its horn, too.

See also



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