Tim Dorsey, author of such anti-social Florida crime novels as Hammerhead Ranch and Florida Roadkill (think Carl Hiaasen tweaking on crystal meth), offers a kinder and gentler political fable in his new novel, Orange Crush. His previous novels have been filled with the kind of horrific yet highly imaginative violence that gives new meaning to the word pulp. In Orange Crush, though, political redemption drives the action, not the homicidal antics of nostalgic psycho killer Serge Storms. The bodies pile, of course, but not quite as high as in his previous books.
Florida Lieutenant Governor Marlon Conrad is a political nothing who has been offered everything. Handpicked by the Florida moneyed and powered elite to be the next figurehead governor, he is more comfortable playing bass fishing games on the computer than wrestling with details of public policy. But in Florida, according to Dorsey, those details don't really matter. Policy is made by "Big Oil, Big Sugar, Big Insurance and Big Rental Car..." and their representatives, lobbyists, corrupt officials and hired thugs. All Marlon Conrad has to do marry his marionette-obsessed fiancé (daughter of powerful lobbyist Periwinkle Belvedere), wait for the current governor to serve his term, and let his handlers do the rest. The road to the Governor's office is clear, except for one tiny, insignificant snag: Marlon did not register with Selective Service.
To Marlon’s handlers, though, there was opportunity in crisis. Marlon should join the National Guard: he'd look patriotic and could be inactive. Through chance or destiny, Marlon actually sees duty in the Balkans and, through baptism by fire, becomes born again as a man of the people. No longer content to be a tool of the Establishment, Marlon, at the prompting of his mysterious Press Secretary Jack Pimento, takes off on a political odyssey across Florida in an RV they call Orange Crush. Conrad's political opponent, the gourmandizing Speaker of the House Gomer Tatum, has also found new political life, thanks to the working class striving of his girlfriend Jackie Monroeville. So the election for governor, once a given for Marlon, becomes a no-holds-barred wrestling match with democracy as the prize.
In Orange Crush, Dorsey turns over the dumpster of Florida politics to find every conceivable creature: a real estate magnate whose role model seems to be Dr. Strangelove; a man so average that his actions predict every major trend including election results; revenge seeking political prisoners; and power brokers of every stripe. And despite Dorsey's new kinder and gentler approach, we still have exploding heads, graffitoed corpses, snuff films, grifters and drug dealers. All of which makes the political fable -- the story of Marlon Conrad's political redemption and that of Florida's politics in general -- seem purely so. Dorsey presents a Florida that is even wilder than that of his compatriots (Hiaasen, Hall, White, Buchanan and so on), where everyone is mad, bad or somewhere in between. It is not a place where one man, no matter how well intentioned, could renew democracy, especially in the wake of Bush v. Gore. But if the lessons of Orange Crush seem naïve, the writing is tight, the weirdos are weird, the hero's insane, and even the "note on the type" is funny. You can't ask for more from a Florida crime novel.