Chomp – Carl Hiaasen

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Hooray for Carl Hiaasen and Chomp, the latest in his Florida wilderness adventures for intrepid kids. Chomp, as you might deduce, deals with a very large and toothy alligator but the comic romp (sorry, irresistible rhyming compulsion) ranges all over the exotic flora and fauna of the Everglades and the reckless foibles of the flawed human species as well. It’s wild, in every sense of the word. And it’s fun, because Hiaasen’s children’s books are educational and hilarious and this one is no exception.

Wahoo Cray plans to change his name to something normal as soon as he hits eighteen and can do so legally. For the time being, he helps his father wrangle the menagerie of critters that live on their property at the edge of the Glades, tossing nuked whole chickens to Alice the gator, who accidentally crunched off his thumb once, and feeding pythons, monkeys, turtles and whatever else wanders into their “zoo”. Wahoo’s mom is a language teacher who flies off to China as the book opens to make some cash from tin-eared executives so the family can catch up on the mortgage and avoid foreclosure. Not much money has been coming in since dad was conked on the head by a frozen giant iguana that tumbled out of a palm tree during a cold snap.

By the time a reader digests all this madness, the arrival of a reality TV crew and a fake made-for-television survivalist and adventurer seems almost tame. Alice nearly chomps the back end off the TV star when he ignores the Cray duo’s warning about provoking her. The show then hires the two of them to guide the production into the real Everglades to encounter actual wild creatures for the star to wrestle into submission and probably roast over a counterfeit campfire. While collecting supplies for the expedition, they rescue a girl named Tuna with a major shiner in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart where she lives with her drunk, abusive father in a trailer. And then things really get interesting.

Throughout the violence–staged and real–with chopper shots, stunt doubles, razor-toothed wildlife, crashed air boats and loaded guns, Hiaasen delivers a boatload of information about indigenous and invasive species, the destructive incursion of people into a pristine wilderness, the idiocy of same species, and the wonders to be glimpsed when you venture off the beaten trails. There are good old boys—and bad old boys—greedy media types, plucky kids, deluded and well-meaning grown-ups, fortuitous and disastrous accidents and nonstop action. He even manages to sneak in a subplot about vampires, capitalizing on the current craze for the paranormal without sacrificing the fine intelligence and irony that give every incident a delicious twist.  

Hiaasen has delivered another knock-out punch. Hoot, Flush and Scat are his previous books for kids and the discriminating adults I know who have sampled them are as enamored of the formula as younger readers. May he never run out of environmental crusades to wage so we can look forward to many more one-syllable escapades in Florida’s endangered and endlessly entertaining ecosystems. Chomp is excellent. Devour it at your earliest opportunity.

Chomp    Carl Hiaasen | Alfred A. Knopf   2012

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