BOOK REVIEW / Erin strips for action: Strip tease - Carl Hiaasen: Macmillan pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
WHEN Dora Oberling, a nude dancer, is shot leaving the Mons Venus club in Tampa, Florida, only two things stand between her and certain death: her 36D silicone breast implants. Paramedics at the scene are amazed to discover that these 'saline envelopes encasing pouches of silicone' act as shock-absorbers. 'Those implants saved her,' says Sergeant Mike Smith, after charging her 75-year-old former boyfriend with aggravated battery. 'The bullet went through, top to bottom, and stopped short of her heart.' What he doesn't say is whether the force is considering the introduction of such implants for its officers - so much neater than bulletproof vests.

Strip Tease, Carl Hiaasen's new novel, is outrageous and grotesque - as is to be expected from the creator of Double Whammy (crime and cheating on the professional angling circuit) or Skin Tight (more crime and more cheating, only this time in a plastic surgery). It's another dirt-filled, joke-crammed shaggy yarn in which the gags come close to gagging. Hiaasen plunges, like someone gleefully burying their hands in a bucketful of slime, into the sordid milieu of the Eager Beaver, a strip joint outside Fort Lauderdale in southern Florida. We meet congressman Dave Dilbeck, the son of a sewage pumper, whose mucky misdemeanors are smeared over by Malcolm Moldowsky, the fixer's fixer in the shiny suit. And here's Erin, stripper and mother, whose ex-husband steals wheelchairs but has custody of their child. And here's Sgt Al Garcia, who bumps into a floater while fishing in Montana and comes down to sort them all out.

There's a lot going on, but on the way through Hiaasen finds time to introduce us to creamed corn nude wrestling, operations to convert outie tummy buttons to innies, men who get their kicks sniffing laundry lint. You're tempted to wonder: how does he think of these things? Well, consider the story of the silicone implants. It doesn't appear in the novel, but actually happened in Miami a fortnight ago and was reported in the papers. One doesn't want to detract from the novelist's evident powers of imagination, but Hiaasen is an investigative reporter with the Miami Herald, and this kind of stuff must pass by him all the time.

Hiaasen often seems torn, in his books, between a drive to expose vice and injustice and a desire to say 'what the hell' and wallow in the comedy of the criminal underworld. One minute, he's showing you the farcical potential of liposuction, the next he's banging on about the pollution of the Everglades. In Strip Tease, the balance tips broadly speaking in favour of the comedy. There's some serious business about the government's dodgy dealing with sugar magnates and their exploitation of migrant workers, but it rarely gets the better of his comic edge. There are too many running jokes about a character's aftershave, for one thing (his cologne 'could gag a maggot'), not to mention a detective called Merkin.

And it's never long before Hiaasen's off, frolicking with some hung-over estate agents on a deep sea diving expedition or mercilessly ribbing a pair of honeymooners (with their 'matching black Ray-bans and pink terrycloth tennis visors'). Sometimes he hangs around so long with an incidental character it's almost as if he's loath to let them go.

That's even more the case with his baddies. Just as the language used to describe them belongs to lower-life forms (some have 'mad-dog eyes' or huge necks 'throbbing with veins' or are prone to 'raw sucking noises') so their deaths bring out Hiaasen's sharpest wit. Moldowsky, for example, struck by a golf club, dies in self-parody. 'Is it a nine-iron or a wedge?' he wonders. 'Those fuckers in the press would make a point to find out.' His face, meanwhile is 'like a divot'. The convolutions of plot and subplot race on, but Hiaasen always finds time for the telling detail.

Only with the figure of the striptease heroine does Hiaasen's comic edge slip. While the Marvellas and Loreleis and Urbana Sprawls of her world sport pythons and Day-Glo dance bras, she remains as pure as the day she first took her clothes off in a lace teddy and white G-string.

Hiaasen wants it both ways. Erin is happy to undress in sordid bars, but she has high principles: there's no way she'll do tables. Off duty, she'll pull on grey sweatpants and a baggy T-shirt, take her daughter to see 101 Dalmations, and spout economic facts as fluently as if she'd been going to a different sort of evening class. Hiaasen cops out with her; strip away his dry wit and tough cynicism, and he's just an old romantic.

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