Carl Hiaasen's perfect caper souffle

November 23, 1997|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun staff

"Lucky You," by Carl Hiaasen. Knopf. 368 pages. $24.

Lucky us.

Carl Hiaasen has written a new novel, his seventh as a solo act. It has all the now-familiar hallmarks of a Hiaasen novel - a fallen journalist hero, a woman as sensible as she is beautiful, a villian with something inorganic attached to his body. And, above all, it has a fierce love for Florida and utter contempt for its despoilers.

In lesser hands, this would be a polemic, and a dreary, formulaic one at that. But Hiaasen is working from a recipe, a delicious one that only a choice few can whip up. (Think Elmore Leonard, or Donald Westlake.) And who could be so mingy as to complain about a man who arrives at your door every two years, give or take a month, bearing a perfect souffle? Not I. For one thing, that kind of myopic, self-centered woman often fares badly in Hiaasen's work. (It also should be noted in the interest of full disclosure that Hiaasen's brother, Rob, is a reporter here at The Sun, not that such a relationship would do him much good. Hey, we can't even spell that last name right on a regular basis.)

The set-up in "Lucky You" is swift and satisfying. The $28 million Florida lottery has two winners. One of them, JoLayne Lucks, is quite content with $14 million, which will enable her to set up a wildlife sanctuary in her hometown. The other ticket-holders, Bode and Chub, are the sum total of a fledgling white supremacist group that does not include sharing in its belief system. They drive to JoLayne's hometown, intent on separating her from her ticket.

Add an ex-journalist who yearns to be an ex-husband, a wily Hooters waitress and a babbling editor who relives his alliterative glories while fondling turtles and you have a very fine example of the caper novel, a form that only the most skillful writers can pull off.

But Hiaasen sneaks in another issue - race. For JoLayne is black, and in one of the book's most memorable scenes, she straddles her would-be hero - Tom Krome, the ex-journalist and wannabe ex-husband - and interrogates him.

"JoLayne cuffed him. 'OK, how many black friends do you have? I mean friends friends.'

'There's a black guy at work - Daniel, from Editorial. We play tennis every now and then. And Jim and Jeannie, they're lawyers. We get together for dinner.'

'That's your answer?'

Krome caved. 'OK, the answer is none. Zero black black friends.'

'Just like I thought.' "

Luckily, the truth sets him free.

To tell more would be mean-spirited, akin to showing someone a brilliant balloon, then producing a pin and popping it. But to paraphrase Mae West, when Hiaasen is good, he's very good. When his characters are bad - or crazy, or just plain stupid - he's better.

Laura Lippman is a feature writer for The Sun, where she writes frequently about publishing. Her second novel, "Charm City," was just published by Avon. Her third book, "Butchers Hill," is scheduled for publication next summer.

Pub Date: 11/23/97

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