"CHOMP: A NOVEL." By Carl Hiaasen. Alfred A. Knopf. $16.99. Age 10 and up.
South Florida is known for many things: Alligators, orange groves and the writer who spins the area's most sensational attributes into even more sensational story lines, Carl Hiaasen. In his many best-sellers for adults and kids, Hiaasen has demonstrated a unique gift for wrapping real environmental issues into apocryphal, bust-a-gut books that parody pop culture -- a talent he furthers in his most recent middle-school novel, "Chomp."
In a crossover title that bears all the Hiaasen hallmarks, minus the sex, a young boy named Wahoo helps his father recover from an iguana-caused concussion. Wahoo, however, is mostly a bystander to a rollicking plot that pulls back the curtain on so-called reality TV and its biggest outdoorsy phenom, "Man vs. Wild."
Relentlessly normal, Wahoo isn't the most compelling protagonist to lead readers through a story as wild as this one, but he is, at least, sane. "Chomp" is written by Hiaasen, after all, meaning the characters are, at best, eccentric. At worst, they're narcissistic ladder-climbers or parasitic morons.
The real star of "Chomp" is Derek Badger, a former Irish folk dancer-turned-showbiz survivalist who landed the lead role on "Expedition Survival!" for his ability to swallow a live salamander without vomiting. Badger is a huge television star who sports a spray-on tan and fake Australian accent and enjoys five-course meals and five-star hotels off camera, but he is also a klutz whose mishaps are disguised by makeup and clever editing.
"Chomp" takes its name from the many critters that play supporting roles in this book, biting Badger with abandon in unseemly body parts. In previous episodes of his show on the Untamed Channel, Badger tripped over a tortoise and fell on a yucca. He broke both ankles when baby geckos "scurried up his shorts." So for the Everglades episode, Badger's producers have wisely reached out to Wahoo's dad, a well-known animal wrangler who keeps Alice the alligator, Beulah the python and dozens of other exotic critters as pets.
Like Hiaasen's other books for young readers, "Chomp" is a social commentary with a strong environmental message that slyly embeds into the action a lot of information about Florida's flora and fauna. Humorous as it is to open a story with a 7 1/2 -pound lizard falling from a palm tree and prompting a hospital visit, the underlying problem of people dumping imported animals into the wild is real. It just isn't particularly funny.
Such realities are merely a departure point for Hiaasen, who wraps them in new and unusual shapes that invariably involve trailer trash, or, more accurately, the comedic opportunities their lives present. He extracts humor by bringing the authentic and poseurish into contact in the most outrageous ways and highlighting crazy behavior of the desperate.
Wahoo's dad might not have accepted the assignment to film "Expedition Survival!" in his backyard if he weren't on the verge of losing his home to foreclosure. If it weren't for Badger's attempt to put the "real" back into "reality" by later moving the shoot to the actual Everglades, it's even less likely Wahoo would have met the illiterate airboat driver or a girl named Tuna who was living in a Winnebago in a Wal-Mart parking lot with her drunken, gun-toting dad.
But readers will certainly be happy they did. Hiaasen delights in over-the-top absurdism, not only in his plot but his wordsmithing. His inventive descriptions alone make this book worth reading. When Wahoo's dad snores, it sounds "like a dump truck stripping its gears." As for the airboat driver, his "mind operated in a simple way, uncluttered by curiosity and ambition."
Luckily for readers, Hiaasen's mind is more complex. "Chomp" is a delightful laugh-out-loud sendup of the surreality of TV that will be enjoyed by readers of all ages.
-- Susan Carpenter
Los Angeles Times