Book Review: Scat, by Carl Hiaasen, 240 pp. Upper-middle grade fiction
Scat is sort of a comic thriller for kids. Hiaasen is up to his usual, with just slightly absurd characters and situations overlying a serious message about ecology and conservation. Except "message" isn't the right word, because he's not preaching. He's just presenting interesting and sometimes likeable characters who care about Florida's wilderness and wildlife (I haven't encountered any of his books that aren't about Florida).
Nick Waters and his best buddy Marta Gonzales are not-too-enthusiastic students at Truman School, where they are tormented by the science teacher, Mrs. Starch, and go in fear of Duane Scrod, Jr. Known around school as "Smoke," Duane is 16 and rides a motorcycle though only in the 7th grade. Nick and Marta consider Mrs. Starch a witch and Duane a psychopath.
A field trip to Black Vine Swamp results in changes to a lot of their perceptions. A fire cuts short the trip, Mrs. Starch disappears, and Smoke undergoes an apparent personality transplant before being accused of setting the fire and going on the lam. Threats to both the swamp and an adorable (though sharp-clawed baby panther escalate.
A pair of bumblingly evil oil execs and their hapless employee Martin make up the main cast of villains. They are unsuccessful at just about everything, as evidenced by Jimmy Lee Bayliss popping Tums one after another, and Drake McBride getting clobbered by the horse he's trying to learn to ride in an effort to look like a real Texan (because all oilmen are Texans, right?). So we are never in any real doubt that the villains will get theirs, no one will end up dead, and everything will be okay in the end. It's how we get there that creates just the right amount of tension for a kid's book.
A second thread running through the book is that of Nick's National Guard father, who has been sent to Iraq, where all is not going well (I'll keep it vague to avoid spoilers). My first reaction was that this was a little too dark a thread for a story like Hiaasen's. On reflection, however, I realized that (though the connection is never made explicit), the threat to both Black Vine Swamp and Mr. Waters is the same: our unquenchable thirst for oil. Hiaasen leaves the reader to figure that one out herself, thus preserving his book as a great humorous thriller, not a sermon on the evils of an oil-based economy. He never preaches: we are left to see for ourselves that a swamp and a panther are more to be cherished--and are a lot more loveable--than an oil company.
Took me something from 30-50 pages to get truly grabbed, something that I've noticed with Hiaasen's other books. I'm not sure if this is something to do with the books, with the level of attention I'm bringing to my reading when I first start a book, or with the fact that I'm not really a Florida person so I'm a little slow to warm up. Certainly by the end I'm more than willing to sacrifice some of my sleep to see how it all comes out. And maybe Hiaasen would be happy to know that while I'll never give up my preference for desert and alpine environments, he's gradually eroding my distaste for bugs and humidity and making me kinda want to see the Everglades.