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SUMMER READING ISSUE : Thriller, Florida-Style : FICTION : BUZZ CUT, By James W. Hall (Delacorte: $22.95; 352 pp.)

June 02, 1996|John Balzar | John Balzar is a national correspondent for The Times and a frequent contributor to Book Review

To write fiction and draw inspiration from the Florida Keys is to work under tall shadows. Stylists like Jim Harrison, Tom McGuane and Ernest Hemingway already explored this torpid terrain and its everlasting cliche--the sun-weathered enigmatic fisherman at the end of his line.

The Keys are a spartan theater stage: dramatic for its simplicity. There is a bar, a beach, a skiff, the sea and heavy wet air, conducive to wild lightning in the heads of sun-weathered enigmatic fishermen.

James W. Hall, PhD and author of four books of poetry, is best known as a writer of off-center, dark-comedy action mysteries anchored in these rich literary waters of the Florida Keys. He remains true to the storied traditions, complete with fisherman as hero. To which he adds zany villainy, far-fetched 360-degree plots and roughly equal measures of danger and romance.

Like beer from the bottom of a bait well, Hall's books pssssst and bubble over as soon as you open them.

Which is why we buy these books and delight in introducing our friends to them. "Haven't heard of James Hall? Well. . . ."

Publishers insist on using descriptions like "heart-pounding," "explosive" and "taut" about Hall's seven mysteries--hype that is inexact and misses the salient point, namely that Hall delivers oddball fun at a rip of a pace, without letting you forget that he is a literate, stylish writer of the Florida Keys.

Enigmatic, 40ish, fly-tying Thorn is Hall's most frequently reappearing, and endearing, character. In "Buzz Cut," he is back after a one-book absence to carry the story, along with ex-cop sidekick Sugarman. Like the fishermen of Hemingway, Harrison and McGuane, Hall's Thorn is laconic and accepts his luck, good or bad. Although he doesn't willingly accept much else.

Thorn has escapist appeal. He doesn't have a driver's license or credit card, doesn't need them out here on the fringe of consumptive society. He embodies freedom in ways the rest of us simply cannot. His friendships are deep, and so are the brooding wounds society has somehow inflicted on his quiet world. He wishes to be left alone, but of course is not. Or what would be the point?

Then somebody is always getting dead. And that cuts into fishing time.

Like plenty of other male action writers, Hall serves up a rather predictable succession of young, ripe, recovering females for Thorn--perhaps appealing to fantasies of a nonliterary sort. But Hall has, and does again in "Buzz Cut," produced memorable screwball women who form unexpected bridges between our hero and his villain.

Sylvie Winchester in Hall's 1994 book "Mean High Tide" is one of the truly strangest characters ever to emerge from this genre. A raunchy girl-woman, she seduces men (does she ever) and enlists them to try and kill her father. But it turns out she only wants to keep dear old dad's assassin skills honed with real-life challenges--a kind of devotion rarely seen in children these days.

Hall's new book takes place aboard a Florida cruise ship, where a man rigs himself to be a human stun gun and hatches a clever scheme to support his habit: feeding starving orphans. It seems Mr. Stun Gun's mommy is remarried to the greasy rich owner of the ship, who has lost his rebellious daughter. Oh no, here is the daughter after all. And it looks as if Thorn is sweet on her. But she's in the company of Mr. Stun Gun, whose brother happens to be Thorn's sidekick, Sugarman, a security consultant for the cruise line. And did we mention the dead TV anchorman or the oil-filled supertanker gone haywire?

Hall is not quite as wildly eccentric as Miami comic-mystery writer Carl Hiaasen, not as formulaic straight as Florida's old favorite John D. MacDonald and not as pathologically homicidal as that other grand tropical master, Charles Willeford. Which is to say, Hall is something of all of them, Key West-style.

So when a storm is brewing, when the bonefish get nervous and the sky darkens and smells of ozone, the lightning is sure to come next. Watch out.

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