Book Review: 'Chomp' by Carl Hiaasen

Before the invention of reality TV, no one would have believed Carl Hiaasen's latest character of questionable repute and absolute outrageousness.

Derek Badger is a tubby former dancer with an addiction to prime beef, artisanal cheese and marble-tiled hotel baths who has somehow convinced vast TV audiences that he is an Australian naturalist who wrestles animals, sleeps in the wild and scavenges in some of the world's harshest environments.

He is, of course, a complete poser whose survival skills are pure Hollywood.

Our knowledge of reality TV -- that it's no more real than unicorns and Internet privacy -- is why Hiaasen's scene-stealing Badger is a hilariously cutting sendup.

Chomp is aimed at the young teenage market, like Hoot in 2002, Flush in 2005 and Scat in 2009.

My 13-year-old son, Cole, read Chomp after I finished. His initial description was that it was "really silly and really out there with the crazy TV guy and drunk dude and the hillbilly redneck with the air boat. I loved it."

That's Hiaasen's style. And Badger is the perfect vehicle for moving the story into the absurd.

But Hiaasen has a way of making even his young-reader books appeal to a much wider age range, perhaps because he has toiled in the mass-market newspapering world of The Miami Herald for more than 30 years. Hiassen has also written more than a dozen other books for adults, most of them rife with murder, greed, sex and rednecks.

Chomp is his latest wacky Florida-set tale, and no wonder. Like many of his books, Chomp has an undercurrent of awareness of the fragility of nature and man's sometimes terrible impact on it.

The book is built around Mickey Cray, a wildlife wrangler who loves animals more than people, and his son, Wahoo, whose personality is 180 degrees different than his name would suggest. It's never clear, but Wahoo is probably in the 12- to 15-year-old range.

Faced with medical problems caused by a concussion and subsequent depression after a dead iguana fell on his head, Mickey is struggling as a provider. Mom takes off for a teaching job in China because they're in arrears on the mortgage.

The Crays' financial picture improves with the arrival of a producer from Expedition Survival!, the popular TV show featuring Badger. Cray gets hired for his expertise and collection of exotic pets -- the show can't have Badger off dealing with actual wild animals.

Of course, the arrogant Badger, fresh from a near-death experience with Cray's pet alligator Alice, insists on shooting in the wild and brings the two Crays to help him.

Tuna, a school friend of Wahoo's, joins them after they rescue her from her abusive father.

A series of misadventures follows in the Everglades involving violent thunderstorms, a catering crisis, a nonvenomous snake that sinks its fangs into Badger and the star's tantrums because he can't get back to his five-star hotel. It all leads to a Florida mastiff bat biting Badger on the tongue, firmly establishing in Badger's addled mind that he will become a vampire.

Oh, yeah, the abusive and drunken father tracks down his daughter on scene, and he has a gun.

If it sounds ridiculously over the top, well, it is.

My son also relished that the only two remotely responsible characters in the book are his age.

"Tuna was really self-reliant," he told me. "And Wahoo handled all the money decisions for his dad."

(I told him not to get any ideas. It was just a story.)

I hope young people know how much luckier they are when it comes to choices in fiction, thanks to people like Hiaasen. At my son's age, I remember reading The Caine Mutiny, The Call of the Wild and Lord of the Flies. I loved them all.

But I don't remember a lot of variety out there for my age, certainly nothing as ludicrous as a TV shoot with Derek Badger.

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