Michael Masterson, the direct marketing entrepreneur, has suggested that beach books are, like television, mental junk food. While I have some sympathy for that position, like everyone else I sometimes need a break. Better a best-selling novel than sitcoms (although I do those, too). My justification is that I can’t dissociate completely from the broader culture .
This year I actually didn’t get a summer vacation and I’ve taken to saying that July was the longest 3 months of my life. Still, there was the occasional few hours a week at the town pool. That was enough to get in a couple of books by popular authors Carl Hiaasen and Nelson DeMille.
Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip is a typically silly romp through modern-day Florida. A newspaperman and native of the state, Hiaasen is no fan of the unbridled–maybe even unprincipled–development that defines the state. He’s especially sore about encroaching on and destroying environmental treasures like the Everglades, but his dismay is tempered by good humour.
That the Everglades look like a big swamp just waiting to be filled and developed is a recurring theme in Hiaasen’s books. This time there’s an agribusiness angle. Previous tales have employed real estate and bass fishing. As always, there’s a cast of not-quite-to-be believed characters.
Some of these folks, mostly the saner ones, have appeared in the other novels. But sanity is relative in Hiaasen’s world. The insane are monomaniacally focused on their particular project and let little–especially laws–stop them. The comparatively sane ones include a reclusive ex-cop living alone on an island, an ex-Governor of the state living on the land and dining on road kill, a python-keeping detective who longs for the sanity of Minnesota, and a pair of orphaned, millionaire siblings intent on playing mind games for revenge.
On the nuts end of the spectrum you have a Don Tyson-like agribusinessman who comes across as Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove, a biologist who scammed his way to earning a PhD and an enforcer who’s part Andre the Giant and part Cooter Barnes. The story is only slightly improbable, the concern for the Everglades is real and the silliness is constant.
By comparison, the dark undercurrent of human affairs is never far away in the Nelson DeMille novels I’ve read. The Gate House, sequel to The Gold Coast, is no exception. The current volume is only slightly more plausible than the first tale. In that earlier book, the remnants of Old and New Money (in the 19th century sense) intersected with the modern mafia in a manner that had deadly consequences.
Revenge drives the plot in the The Gate House. That’ s the part that’s most believable because it’s most in keeping with the formal dictates of the mafia novel. The book is set a year after the attacks of 9/11/01 and we find John Whitman Sutter returning to Long Island’s North Shore. He promptly runs into a host of people directly or indirectly associated with his past including his ex-wife and a young wanna-be Don on the make. The Don needs to avenge his father’s death, Sutter’s ex wants to reunite and the complications arise from the fact that the ex is the object of the young Don’s revenge fantasies.
Sutter is an inveterate wise-ass in a New York, prep-school kind of way. Non-natives may find Sutter unappealing. For locals–especially Long Islanders or those of us who grew up there–it’s what we know. DeMille is especially good on the nuances of the cultural interactions (he grew up in the same town I did, about 20 years earlier; there’s a DeMille Court in town). You’ll appreciate this more if you understand without thinking about it that of course Nassau and North Shore rhyme.
Most DeMille novels take place in a relatively short period of time and if you let that fact intrude you’ll feel exhausted reading this one. It takes longer to read about all these events than they occupy in the book’s time frame. There is one neat twist that I didn’t see coming, and a hundred pages could have been shaved by dropping the Iranian angle and the faux-psychoanalysis but, all in all, it’s a fun read.