Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Review of Scat by Carl Hiaasen

After I read Hoot and Flush, I tried reading one of Carl Hiaasen’s books for adults and ended up reading all of them. Then a few days ago I read Scat, Hiaasen’s third book for children. The phrase that comes to mind for describing Hiaasen's South Florida world with its colorful characters out to destroy--or rescue--endangered species is “gleeful anarchy.”

When we first meet Mrs. Starch, “the most feared teacher at the Truman School,” she is terrorizing students, as seen mostly through the eyes of Nick and his friend Marta. But when Mrs. Starch focuses her attention on Duane Scrod (AKA Smoke), he’s not quite as intimidated as he’s supposed to be. Duane, who seems like a delinquent, turns out to have a hidden side—and so does Mrs. Starch. Smoke picks a zit instead of answering the teacher’s question in Biology, whereupon she ruthlessly assigns him to write an essay on pimples. A few days later, when she disappears in the Black Vine Swamp during a field trip and a forest fire, suspicion falls on Smoke, whose name does refer to certain arsonist tendencies.


Of course, nothing is quite that straightforward in one of Hiaasen’s books, and thank heavens for that! When the ironically named Bunny Starch fails to reappear, Nick and Marta start trying to find out what has happened to her. They meet a strange man named Twilly who claims to be their teacher’s nephew. They wonder why Smoke has started acting like a human being. And they eventually stumble across a scam involving an oil company and an endangered puma.

While he’s at it, Carl Hiaasen casts a satirical eye on schools with his portrayal of headmaster Dr. Dressler and educational politics, not to mention the worst substitute teacher in the world; no, make that the universe. Wendell Waxmo punishes students by making them sing, but that’s nothing compared to his teaching techniques: “[O]n Mondays I always teach page 117—and only page 117—regardless of the subject matter.”

A subplot involving Nick’s father being injured while serving in Iraq is handled matter-of-factly, yet with quiet, wrenching tenderness as the boy tries to show his dad his support. Many writers would have trouble making this subplot work while keeping everything else going, but Hiaasen pulls it off.

One thing I noticed is that Scat, like Hoot and Flush, is billed as being for 9- to 12-year-olds, but I thought it was a little tougher than the other two, and not just because of the use of a few words like “dumbass.” Hiaasen is a subversive kind of guy, and it shows more here than in previous outings. Then again, Where the Wild Things Are is pretty subversive, as is just about anything Roald Dahl ever wrote. Even so, I would say Scat skews a bit older. The target audience for Hoot and Flush feels like about 10, while the target audience here seems more like 12 or 13.

Despite his famed environmental agenda, I only get the sense the author is editorializing in one spot, and at least it's when the teacher is talking, so a lecture kind of makes sense. Mostly, however, Hiassen does right by readers with "show, don't tell." Scat is a refreshingly nutty adventure that doesn’t have to resort to car crashes to achieve suspense, although there are helicopters involved, also bubble wrap, orange paint and puma poop. Just as long as you're on the side of the pumas, you're safe to enter the wild world of Carl Hiaasen!

3 comments:

Jennifer said...

We already have Hiaasen's Hoot and Flush in YA at our library - thanks for the heads-up that this is a bit older! Now I REALLY can't wait to read Scat!

KATE COOMBS said...

Have you read Hiassen's books for grown-ups? They're NUTS! My favorite scene is when a guy who lives out in the swamps realizes a menacing stranger's coming up to his place; he can't get to his gun, so he pulls the stuffed swordfish (marlin?) off the wall, waits till the guy comes around the corner with gun drawn, and skewers him with it. Then he repairs the fish's nose with duct tape and hangs it back up. Weird, but funny! Hope you enjoy Scat.

Erin said...

I read it for a book report and thought it was really good. I read it because i loved his other books hoot, and flush. I think kids all over the world ages 10-13 should read this so they understand more about jaguars being extinct. I give it a 500 star book out of 5 stars!!!