Off the Beat

Carl Hiassen
Lucky You

Pete Hautman
Ring Game
Simon & Schuster

THE SECRET BEHIND Carl Hiassen's bizarre mystery novels is that the characters and their twisted crimes are plucked straight from Florida's surreal headlines. A recovering newspaperman, Hiassen has previously featured real-estate developers, tourist-trap operators, discount plastic surgeons, and even a truckload of guys who sold nonexistent roofs to victims of Hurricane Andrew. These were cut-rate villains freshly escaped from the bottom fold of the metro section; Hiassen needed only to give them colorful foils and stretch their misadventures to headline-grabbing extremes.

But that was before Striptease hit the tabloids as a lackluster blockbuster, and the writer, by all accounts an antisocial type to begin with, stole a page from his own stories and took off for Florida's wetlands in a speedboat. If Hiassen's latest novel is any indication, the former Miami Herald columnist hasn't been reading many newspapers lately. Instead, his new material feels as if it's been gleaned thirdhand from Dateline, NBC.

Lucky You begins with a trio of right-wing militia wannabes stealing a winning lottery ticket that they hope to use to underwrite a white supremacist revolt. The victim? The virtuous (and clumsily named) JoLayne Lucks, who had designated the lottery money to rescue a chunk of swamp soon to be plowed under for a shopping mall. With the help of a washed-up feature writer, Lucks pursues the thieves into the Florida Keys.

Yet Hiassen has lost the trail long before this story starts to wallow in the mangroves. The book's supremacists are too high-concept to be credible villains; more bumblers than bad guys, they lack the touch of evil of the fiends who populate Hiassen's earlier works. Disenfranchised by women, blacks, Latinos, and countless other Pets-of-the-Liberal-Establishment, real-life militia members usually can't shut up about their reasons for taking up arms. Hiassen's self-styled White Clarion Aryans, by comparison, have no clear motives. Inbred idiots (one of these supposed supremacists suffers so much white guilt he can't utter "the N word"), these clowns spend the entire book working to stave off the imminent arrival of United Nations troops in the Bahamas. Hiassen drops a handful of references to The Turner Diaries and Gordon Kahl but fails to create lives or personalities for these characters.

The good guys in Lucky You--a Pulitzer-caliber writer stuck in a small-town newsroom and an African American woodswoman--are similarly as thin as the paper they're printed on. Hiassen asks us to believe that the only reason Lucks wants the return of her $14-million Lotto ticket is to finance a permanent home for 45 baby turtles; her paramour is moved solely by the injustice of her plight. By the time the novelist finally kills off the bad guys, we half want the Wise Use Movement to polish off the heroes.

That Lucky You feels so flat is a major disappointment largely because the offbeat mystery genre pioneered by Hiassen and by Get Shorty author Elmore Leonard is now so popular. One author skating over the same unctuous ground is Minneapolis native Pete Hautman; his fifth novel, Ring Game, may depend on the same literary device--setting a handful of self-serving oddballs on a wryly comic collision course--but its plot is far fresher.

Ring Game resurrects several characters from Hautman's last gonzo crime novel, The Mortal Nuts (memorably set at Minnesota State Fair), and draws them into a scheme to land Hyatt Hilton, the story's black hat, on the fictional TV tabloid show Hard Copy. Hilton, a small-time hustler who sells counterfeit Evian to convenience stores in South Minneapolis, plans to get on TV by arranging his own abduction, supposedly at the hands of a jilted immortality cult.

To heighten the kidnapping's dramatic potential, Hilton plans to have himself snatched from his own wedding, a just-for-show marriage with Carmen Roman, the opportunistic daughter of the state fair's taco-stand owner. The taco king smells a (figurative) rat, however, and enlists bodybuilder Joe Crow to look into Hilton's shady past. Predictably enough, the characters from Crow's gym slam headlong into Hilton's former cohorts, a couple of self-styled Eastern spiritualists who promise to teach followers to "reprogram" their bodies' cells away from mankind's "Death Program." (Hiassen devotees will recognize several themes: One of Hautman's bodybuilders gobbles steroids, for example, causing both a revolting skin condition and murderous rages that might have been lifted whole out of Hiassen's first mystery, Native Tongue.)

Although Ring Game lacks the issue-driven plots that made Hiassen's earlier books so trenchant, the book accomplishes its narrow mission with flair. The story has an early Seinfeld feel, centering on a series of minute events that build up into big ones; Hautman withholds any violence in this ostensible thriller until long after lesser authors would have succumbed to a bloodbath. (And, Ring Game, with its namechecks to local sites, should suitably placate the Star Tribune booster set.)

While Ring Game is a fairly taut read, Lucky You, after disposing of its hapless bigots, spends four more self-indulgent chapters wrapping up with its protagonists and supporting cast. From the liberation of the tiny turtles to the declarations of love between the Lotto winner and her hero, there isn't a single surprise in the endgame of this slack mystery. What better metaphor for Hiassen's career: not knowing when to stop.

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