If you’re in the Florida Keys and someone mentions the Green Flash, they aren’t talking about a superhero. The green flash is an elusive phenomenon that only happens after the most perfect of sunsets. Most folks have never seen one. But it’s the hope of that time-stopping tropical moment that drives Noah Underwood, the teen hero of Carl Hiaasen’s Flush. Hiassen has been writing about the fragility of South Florida for years in the Miami Herald, and it’s been a running theme in all his novels. Recently, he’s turned to writing for young adults. Flush is set in the upper Keys, which gives it a small town vibe, but the villany is big city illegal dumping and a corrupt government’s blind eye. And scariest of all, Noah’s parent’s have been fighting. Hiassen peoples this novel with characters you might find in the bars and on the boats down in the Keys, and treats them all with great affection. Will Noah help his trouble prone dad stop the dumping and clear his name? Will his parents work things out? And who’s the mysterious pirate that keeps showing up? Hiassen respects his young audience and doesn’t sugar coat, but I was glad that Noah and his family finally got their green flash.
Carl Hiassen has for years been sort of the Cassandra of the Everglades, writing in the Miami Herald and then in his many novels, all set in Florida, crying out against political corruption which Florida didn’t invent but is working hard on perfecting, and the many looming man-made threats to the wetlands and the Everglades. He’s written about profiteering and escaped lab monkeys after hurricane Andrew, death by liposuction, and that tropical heart of darkness his personal arch mortal enemy the theme park. They tend to have a pattern brave, resourceful women, quirky or possibly crazy but heroic leading men, and the villains are a baroque rogues’ gallery my favorite was from the terrific novel Skin Tight: the bad guy got his hand chewed off by a barracuda, so he replaced it with what else? a weed whacker. Hiaasen loves his bad guys. The other thing you could count on was the backdrop of vanishing Florida the wetlands, the Everglades, the Keys. The villains generally came armed with lots of money and a backhoe, and even though they may have been dispatched by the end of the books, there were always more waiting in the wings. His books are always pretty funny, but there’s also always that element of sadness, because he knows, and we know, that any environmental victory in Florida is temporary. There are always more condos, more money, and more bulldozers.
Then it seems Hiassen had a brainstorm. He started writing for young adults. If you’ve ever gotten the anti-smoking speech from a 9-year old, or been lectured by a teen vegetarian, you know there is no zealot quite as passionate as a child. Is Carl Hiaasen embarking on an environmental childrens’ crusade?
His new novel, Flush, is the second written for the young adult audience. It’s set in the Upper Keys, the part that most tourists drive through on their way between Miami and Key West. The young narrator, Noah, has a lot on his plate. He’s being hassled by a bully, mom and dad are fighting, and well, dad’s in jail. Dad would be the quirky one. Noah and his brave resourceful little sister team up to take on the owner of a gambling ship that’s illegally dumping its waste flushing into the ocean and fouling their beloved beaches. Along the way they meet up with characters that will seem very familiar to anyone who’s spent any time in the Keys or in one of Haissen’s other novels the tough but good-hearted barmaid, her severely no-account boyfriend, and one of Hiassen’s favorite character types the mysterious old man of the swamps. When he entered the scene I thought he was a familiar face to fans of Hiaasen’s earlier work the ex-governor of Florida turned ‘glades hermit Clinton ‘Skink’ Tyree (Hiaasen also loves reformed politicians). Wasn’t him but this character did set things up nicely for a sequel. The plot the kids and their friends come up with to tie the waste back to the boat and incriminate the dumper is pretty ingenious, and I couldn’t help but cheer for Noah when he saves a loggerhead turtle from the poop filled water. Yes, it’s pretty gross but ingenious! Kids love stuff that’s disgusting, and the do-good message of environmental responsibility is wrapped in a coat of you get the idea. It’s an unlikely subject for a book, but a very important one. I lived in the Middle Keys for many years and saw the water go from green to brown, so I am on board with this particular bad guy getting what he deserves. Even though this is a book for young people, Hiaasen respects his audience enough to make the plot a bit gritty the kids are lost at sea, and there is some talk of divorce if dad can’t dial down the quirkiness but the ending is a happy one, even if it is like the green flash at sunset Noah’s family keeps looking for temporary and precious.