In three previous mysteries --- HOOT, FLUSH and SCAT --- Carl Hiaasen has offered young readers entertaining comic mysteries that combine environmental concerns and social issues with plenty of wacky laughs. Now, in CHOMP, he extends his winning streak with a funny novel that dives into the world of reality television.
"Like Hiaasen's earlier books for young people, CHOMP provides plenty of interesting information about Florida ecosystems and the animals that inhabit them. It incorporates serious social issues --- in this case, child abuse and economic insecurity --- into what is otherwise a pretty light-spirited novel."
Wahoo Cray's backyard is the stuff of fantasy for practically any preteen boy. Up until a debilitating accident involving a frozen iguana, Wahoo's dad, Mickey, was the most in-demand animal wrangler in the Florida Everglades. The Crays' backyard is full of every kind of Everglades creature imaginable, from baby raccoons to Burmese pythons to a 12-foot mild-mannered gator named Alice. But ever since that iguana conked him on the head, Mickey's migraines and double vision have meant that the clients have stopped calling. Now Wahoo's mom is in China teaching English to make money, and Wahoo is worried that his family is about to lose their most unusual home to foreclosure.
But then, out of the blue, potential salvation arrives in the form of reality television "survivalist" Derek Badger, who is about to shoot the Everglades edition of his show, “Expedition Survival!” Derek's producers are sure that the Crays' backyard Everglades scene will be plenty "real" for his purposes. But Derek --- who is as clueless and incompetent as he is ambitious --- has his own ideas about the shoot, ideas that practically land him in Alice's belly.
When Derek's crew, impressed by Mickey's fearlessness and wildlife knowledge (not to mention his impressive ability to rescue Derek from inevitable crises), hire Mickey and Wahoo to follow the crew on location into the Everglades, Wahoo is thrilled --- this is just the kind of well-paying job he's been waiting for. But complications lurk beneath the surface, just like deadly water moccasins in the Everglades swamps. There's Tuna Gordon, a self-described taxonomist who's on the run from her abusive, alcoholic father. And there's Derek himself, who suffers from delusions of grandeur --- until he disappears and causes the biggest crisis of all.
Like Hiaasen's earlier books for young people, CHOMP provides plenty of interesting information about Florida ecosystems and the animals that inhabit them. It incorporates serious social issues --- in this case, child abuse and economic insecurity --- into what is otherwise a pretty light-spirited novel. It also mines its subject matter --- particularly reality TV star Derek Badger --- for plenty of laughs. At times (such as when Derek is convinced, and secretly optimistic, that a bite from a large bat will transform him into a vampire like the ones in his favorite B-movies), the plot crosses the line into absurdity. But Hiaasen never loses control of his story, no matter how zany it becomes, and the novel retains its heart even as readers will be laughing their heads off.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 21, 2012