Anyone who’s read Carl Hiaasen’s adult novels in the past is already acquainted with the character of Skink. Those adults who’ve also read his more recent young adult (YA) work have likely wondered why those books’ teenage protagonists have never run across the swamp-dwelling ex-governor. Well, that question has finally been answered: it’s right there in print, in Skink — No Surrender.
Meet Richard Sloan, all of fourteen years old, five-foot one (and a half), and resident of a south Florida island community. Richard (never Dick, Rich, or Richie), is becoming increasingly worried about his cousin Malley. That effervescent young lady, a whole eight days younger than her cousin, is nowhere to be found. She doesn’t answer emails or texts and her cell is going straight to voicemail. Something is clearly wrong, and that something is that Malley has run off to avoid being sent to boarding school in New Hampshire. What’s worse, she appears to have joined a “friend” she met online, a dark, brooding poetic young man named Talbo Chock. Richard is concerned, not least because the only Talbo Chock google.com knows about is a dead war hero.
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Everything is set in motion once Richard meets his neighborhood nature-boy swamp dweller on the beach. Though he has no idea what a chat room is and tells Richard he should “goggle” something, erstwhile Florida governor Clinton Tyree (aka Skink) can still tell something is seriously amiss. Guided in their search by subtle clues dropped by the now-frightened Malley, the duo set off on a cross-state odyssey to rescue Richard’s missing cousin. Yes, the Skink is still clad in a plastic shower cap and still scrapes roadkill off the highway for his dinner – but he’s a “good” weirdo, unlike the fake Talbo Chock. Hang on kids, because this is where the ride gets bumpy.
YA novel number five from the word processor of former Miami newspaperman Carl Hiaasen, Skink — No Surrender is an uneasy merger between his YA plots and his most enduring adult character. Where previous novels (Hoot, Flush, Scat and Chomp) follow a standard YA plot line with Hiaasen mods – (a) smart adolecent(s) outwit(s) environmental criminal grownups – his latest deviates from that pattern and instead focuses on the issue of online predation. First, the alleged Talbo Chock isn’t really Talbo Chock (if you were surprised by that, you aren’t paying attention) and second, he’s up to no good (ditto the paying attention thing). Young Malley must not have been paying attention herself when she got all those lectures in school and at home about catfishing and worse in online settings. Her mistake has put the young girl in VERY hot water.
Of course (it’s YA, after all) Skink and Richard will prove equal to their task, alternating the role of hero and victim in typical YA style. Hiaasen’s environmental message is perhaps more subtle than usual – much of the heroes’ success results from their firm connection to the world around them, something the villain clearly lacks. Never mind that Clinton Tyree is supposedly dead and – truth be told – a French fry or two short of a happy meal, he quickly becomes Richard’s bosom buddy (not to mention his hero).
Although his heart is clearly in the right place, Hiaasen’s unaccustomed deviation from environmental fiction to a sort of “Kids, you mustn’t trust people you meet online” turns out to be unfortunately formulaic and perhaps even a tad clumsy. The plot, told by Richard in a first-person linear narrative, is weak and at times mildly unbelievable; and Hiaasen’s villain, though clearly a creep, seems tame for an internet predator. After all, the only thing he does to Malley is to handcuff her to the cockpit of a stolen boat and to try to steal a kiss (for which he got a broken nose), otherwise he just hauls her around the state. As in any YA novel, Hiaasen must get Richard’s parents out of the way so the kids can work their magic; but in this instance the necessary string of coincidences and parental distraction seem overly contrived.
The Skink is an enduring hero for Hiaasen fans, at least those who’ve devoured his novels for grown-ups. In this YA setting, however, the character has lost much of his richness and been turned into a one-dimensional collection of tics. The character is not well-represented by this tale, and young-adult readers miss out on the chance to see a legendary character in his prime. After four good to excellent YA novels, Hiaasen has lowered the bar to merely average with Skink — No Surrender – three stars out of five.
Hiaasen four previous YA novels include Hoot — a Newberry Medal honoree.
Skink’s biography is woven through several of Hiaasen’s quirky adult fiction, beginning with 1987’s Double Whammy and continuing up through Star Island, published in 2010