Hiaasen again bares garish South Florida

September 01, 1993|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer

Erin Grant is just another hard-working gal trying to pay the bills, regain custody of her daughter from her ratty ex-husband and keep herself together until something better comes along.

Oh, and she strips. At a place called the Eager Beaver in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. And she does it very, very well, losing herself to the music and smiling a smile so radiantly welcome in a place of robotic nudity and watered-down drinks.

Which is why this stripper with a heart of gold ends up at the center of an ever widening gyre that begins when a lust- and alcohol-addled customer leaps to the stage to grab her and ultimately leads to murder, extortion and a congressman who enjoys filling his cowboy boots with Vaseline before slipping into them.

This could be real life -- it takes place in South Florida, after all, home of all the movers, shakers, scammers and losers who would prefer to sleaze away in temperate climate -- but it's too much fun. Which is why it must be a Carl Hiaasen novel instead.

"Strip Tease" is the fifth high-spirited novel by Mr. Hiaasen, an investigative reporter and columnist for the Miami Herald.

All his trademarks are here in "Strip Tease" -- the healthy, and entirely deserved, disrespect for crooked politicians, the righteous outrage toward environmental criminals and short-sighted developers who would turn this tropical paradise into Hoboken with palm trees, the utter glee at a place and time that can come up with such concepts as topless creamed-corn wrestling.

Yes, in the never-ending creative quest to update girlie shows, creamed corn has joined lime Jell-O and mud as a medium for wrestling. It's one way the Eager Beaver is trying to stay ahead of its competition, the Flesh Farm. (Snakes, pasta -- pasta! -- and the ever popular "friction dancing" are also involved.)

Erin strips to make money, lots of it, to pay the mountains of legal bills she's accumulated trying to get her daughter back. She lost the girl to her ex-husband, a lowlife with a drug problem who steals wheelchairs -- wheelchairs! -- to make a living. The judge who awarded him custody thought Erin's line of work much less conducive to properly raising a child, although it didn't stop him from frequently visiting the Eager Beaver to see if he might reform her.

The club indeed draws a high-powered clientele, including Congressman David Dilbeck, your basic drunken, womanizing public official, who becomes enamored with Erin and creates all sorts of mayhem in pursuit of her. He's up for re-election, something that causes more interest among the scions of Florida's sugar industry -- which hires Jamaican and other island workers for dangerous, near-slave labor -- than among actual voters.

The congressman, you see, is a sure vote for the price supports that make the sugar business outrageously profitable.

So the congressman's fixer, Malcolm Moldowsky, an over-cologned, behind-the-scenes operative, comes to the "rescue" after Mr. Dilbeck nearly kills another customer at the club. Witnesses disappear, permanently. It almost works.

The depiction of the culture of the nude club, circa 1993, is totally engaging. Mr. Hiaasen has an obvious affection for the women who ply this trade -- one character gets through the night, for example, by convincing herself that she's spotted a zTC celebrity in an audience otherwise populated with bachelor-partiers and sad sacks of men. (Bobby Knight and Garrick Utley are among some of her more unlikely spectators.)

The characters are truly characters -- the owner pretends to have Mafia connections, fooling no one, and the bouncer is a good-hearted, pain-impregnable lug who takes to reading the existentialists as a way of coping with a life in which naked breasts have become meaningless for their pervasiveness.

The ending is a bit over-the-edge -- suffice it to say that it involves people in their underwear in a sugar field, discussing the harvest of shame that is the Florida sugar industry, until things get a little more physical and the cavalry rolls in.

That's Florida for you. It's as much a character in "Strip Tease" as the human ones. The book is largely set in Broward County -- just north of Miami, home at one point to the most camera-happy sheriff in the country, Nick Navarro, the man who would make the world safe from 2 Live Crew.

"Strip Tease" captures this world as only a native son can: The Canadian tourists with their blindingly white skin, and the ships dynamited and sunk in the ocean where they rot and rust but serve as fish habitats, replacing the beautiful coral reefs destroyed by man. It's the kind of place where a novelist can write in his author's note, "The events described are purely imaginary, although the accounts of topless creamed-corn wrestling are based in fact."

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Strip Tease"

Author: Carl Hiaasen

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 354 pages, $21

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