Speaking to Poets & Writers in the fall of 2017, Salman Rushdie admitted that he saw a silver lining in Donald Trump’s election. “It’s an awful thing to say,” he said, “that this thing that is very bad for America is very good for the novel.”
This was a common sentiment in the early days of the Trump administration. His election may have been a political low point, the thinking went, but it could very well turn into a cultural high one. Tyranny, oppression, strife—all of these elements have historically led to transcendent art and satire. Shakespeare, after all, wrote King Lear in quarantine during a time of extraordinary political turbulence. The idea seemed to be that you, too, can write a classic. All you have to do is look outside your window and see the truth.
But with the benefit of hindsight, we can safely say Rushdie was wrong. His own attempt at a Trump novel, the overstuffed and undercooked The Golden House in which a twisted Trump appears as “the Joker,” marked a new nadir for a writer who these days seems to hit nothing but nadirs. Efforts from novelists like Howard Jacobson and Dave Eggers have been similarly embarrassing. Capturing this wildly absurd moment has proved difficult for novelists. The jokes are too obvious, having been made thousands of times already on Twitter and The Daily Show. The general thrust of these novels is the same: The president is a boor, his supporters are dumb, and together they might just kill us all.
Novelists, like the rest of us, can’t look away from the Trump administration. Unfortunately, they haven’t found much interesting to say about it.
Carl Hiaasen’s thriller Squeeze Me is, blessedly, an exception. While the best Trump fiction (Mark Doten’s Trump Sky Alpha, Stephen Wright’s Processed Cheese) has dialed up the absurdity to speculative extremes, Hiaasen is clear-eyed: He meets the president on his subterranean level.
It helps that Hiaasen is, alongside Jimmy Buffett, a contender for the title of Poet Laureate of Florida. (Indeed, one could describe the novels of Hiaasen as “Margaritaville noir.”) A longtime Miami Herald columnist, Hiaasen has spent a career lampooning South Florida, the location of Trump’s “Winter White House,” the resort club Mar-a-Lago. But there are serious themes lurking beneath the escapades of his zany characters: corruption, inequality, ecological catastrophe.
Trump is, in many ways, the perfect Hiaasen character: a rich, vain, racist, twice-divorced Palm Beach resident with a penchant for affairs with porn stars. Alec Baldwin’s impression of Trump as a two-bit outer-borough thug has never sat right with me. Reading Squeeze Me, I finally understood why: Donald Trump is a Florida Man, through and through.
Squeeze Me’s first victim is Kiki Pew Fitzsimmons, who, “like most of her friends,” is “twice widowed and wealthy beyond a need for calculation.” She is introduced at a gala benefiting sufferers of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, one of many parties on behalf of lesser afflictions that take place throughout the novel. “Mrs. Fitzsimmons,” Hiaasen writes, “had no personal experience with intestinal mayhem but she loved a good party.” She is a member of a rabidly pro-Trump group, the “Potussies,” made up of other rich women with a taste for drinking too much at exclusive private events.
After getting wasted (and taking some MDMA), Fitzsimmons wanders off and is devoured by a 20-foot python. Fearing the loss of business that would follow the death of an elderly, wealthy woman, caretaker Tripp Teabull clumsily covers up her death. (Hiaasen has a Pynchon-esque gift for names: Other principal characters include Fay Alex Riptoad, Yirma Skyy Frick, and Clinton “Skink” Tyree, an eccentric former governor who has appeared in several of Hiaasen’s books.) By the time her body is found, an undocumented Honduran immigrant named Diego has been arrested for murder.
That is where Trump—referred to only as “Mastodon,” his Secret Service code name—comes in. Smelling a campaign issue—“No More Diegos”—Mastodon spins a lurid tale of Fitzsimmons’s death, quickly embraced by Fox News. Diego, a college-educated Honduran, is recast as a “terrorist” leader of a vicious gang set on murdering the president’s most ardent supporters. It’s up to Squeeze Me’s heroine, Angie Armstrong, to sort out the whole mess, exonerate Diego, and make sure that south Florida’s python problem is contained before another old bat gets devoured. Armstrong is not a cop or a private eye but a pest removal specialist who once served hard time for feeding the hand of a poacher to an alligator.
Any summary of Hiaasen’s work inevitably makes it seem way less crazy than it is. For example, at least one of the pythons is on LSD. Also, there is a device at the stand-in for Mar-a-Lago that can only be described as “Chekhov’s Tanning Bed.” But placing our absurd president in an equally absurd setting normalizes Trump in useful ways: He becomes a product of a distinctly American environment. Hiaasen’s own fondness for vulgarity—“nut sack” appears roughly once every 100 pages, a variant of “fuck” every three—diminishes the usual gap between more highbrow novelists and the president.
By setting Squeeze Me in Palm Beach, Hiaasen focuses squarely on the president’s wealthiest supporters—the true heart of his base. There’s a tendency to treat Trump mania as a distinctly low-class affair, but for Hiaasen it’s an outgrowth of an out-of-touch gerontocracy. The wealthy of Palm Beach are money-grubbing and amoral. “Some of the town’s richest geezers were avid kleptos,” he writes. “Pocket-sized shit disappeared from Lipid House during every gala—the Sumatran teak cocktail forks, Barccarat salt shakers, scotch-infused toothpicks, even the fucking porcelain coasters.” These people support Trump because they have nothing but disdain for everyone beneath them—it’s a way of acting out fantasies of punishing the poor and the non-white.
Hiaasen’s Trump is at once an idiot and a man possessing incalculable power. Asked by a colleague if Mastodon could be right about Diego’s role in Fitzsimmons’s death, one Secret Service agent responds, “Don’t you get it? It doesn’t fucking matter whether he’s right or not. That’s the scary part.” Hiaasen is disgusted by Trump and his supporters, but it’s the president’s ability to alter reality that scares him. Squeeze Me is funny, but as with Hiaasen’s best work, it’s grounded in genuine outrage over the corruption that increasingly defines American political and cultural life. And it turns out there’s no better place to invoke that outrage than the wealthy swamps of Florida.