Newspaper reporter Tom Krome is sent to the small Florida town of Grange to interview JoLayne Lucks, an African-American veterinary assistant who holds one of two winning tickets to the Florida lottery. She consents to an interview, but politely declines to have a news story written about her.
The other winning lottery ticket is held by Bode Gazzer and his best friend "Chub," two unemployed white supremacist thugs. Bode is also the founder and self-proclaimed "leader" of a fledgling militia, which consists solely of himself and Chub. Unwilling to accept only half of the lottery's $28 million jackpot, Bode insists that they track down the owner of the other winning ticket. Discovering that this other winner is black seems to vindicate Bode's conspiracy theory that the United States government is doing everything it can to prevent "Christian white men" from receiving the benefits of the lottery, and makes his and Chub's next decision easy.
After Bode and Chub savagely beat JoLayne and steal her ticket, she appears in Tom's hotel room in Grange, pleading for his help. Krome urges her to contact the police, but she says she can't: she plans to use the lottery proceeds to buy Simmons Wood, a pristine forest plot near her home, to prevent it being redeveloped as a shopping mall or office park; she can't afford to wait for the police, since a labor union in Chicago has already made an offer for the property.
Before leaving Grange, Bode and Chub approach "Shiner," the clerk at the convenience store where JoLayne bought her winning ticket, and convince him to hand over the store's security video showing the purchase, by playing on his small-town boredom and offering him a place within the new "brotherhood."
Krome's editor, Sinclair, who believes in easy, innocuous, "feel-good" stories, refuses to allow any kind of investigation into the alleged lottery theft, and Krome quits in disgust, choosing instead to help JoLayne track down the robbers. Since they also stole her credit card and are using it with abandon on the road, this is an easy task.
JoLayne's friend and ardent admirer, Moffitt, an agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, is also helping her. After JoLayne provides him with the license tag of the robbers' truck, Moffitt identifies Bode and searches his apartment. He does not find the ticket, but is able to deduce its likely hiding place: concealed inside a condom in Bode's wallet. He also leaves an ominous message on the wall of Bode's apartment that sends Bode's paranoia into overdrive and leads to the robbers fleeing south in Bode's truck.
Before doing so, Chub details Shiner, who has joined the "militia," to kidnap Amber, a waitress at Hooters Chub has become smitten with, and bring her to his and Bode's refuge. Watching them, Krome is elated, knowing that "three smitten morons and one beautiful woman" is a disaster waiting to happen.
Meanwhile, Krome is surprised to hear from his attorney that his house exploded. Krome's girlfriend, Katie, is married to a violently jealous Circuit Judge, Arthur, who sent his law clerk to burn down Krome's house. The clerk accidentally ignited the fire with himself inside, and his charred remains are similar enough to Krome's for the coroner to declare Krome dead. Unknown to Krome, his lawyer plans to use the situation to his client's advantage: Krome's estranged wife, Mary Andrea, has gone to absurd lengths to avoid being served with divorce papers, including assuming false names and traveling throughout the United States and Canada.
Krome's lawyer predicts (correctly) that Mary Andrea, an actress, will attempt to capitalize on the publicity surrounding Krome's death, and return to Florida long enough for her to be served.
Bode and Chub steal a motorboat, planning to make a refuge on Pearl Key, a small island in Florida Bay, but because of their inept navigational skills, it is easy for Krome and JoLayne to follow them in a boat of their own. As Krome predicted, tension over Amber's presence (coupled with Shiner's belated realization that Bode and Chub never intended to share the money with him) eventually causes the three "militiamen" to fall out arguing, allowing Krome and JoLayne to ambush and disarm them. Chub is interrupted in his attempt to rape Amber by a shotgun wound to his shoulder, while Bode is knocked unconscious and tied up, allowing JoLayne to remove a lottery ticket from his wallet (ironically, the ticket she takes is the winning ticket Bode and Chub bought). Krome sends Amber and Shiner back to the mainland in the thugs' boat, Amber armed with Chub's revolver to make sure Shiner behaves.
Bode loosens his bonds and tries to escape the island in the only remaining boat. While wrestling with Krome in the shallows, Bode inadvertently kicks a napping stingray, which pierces his femoral artery with its barb. JoLayne does her best to treat Chub's gunshot wound, but can do nothing to save Bode, who dies cursing his own rotten luck, for which he believes he is entirely free of blame ("I'm on God's shit list, that's the story of my whole damn life.")
Krome and JoLayne depart the island in the remaining boat, leaving Chub behind with some meager supplies. They collect JoLayne's first lottery payout in Tallahassee, and return to Grange in time to bid against the union's representative, Bernard Squires, for Simmons Wood. At first, Squires is ready and willing to outbid JoLayne, but Moffitt drops by and threatens to put Squires and his real employer (a Chicago Mafia boss skimming from the union's pension fund) in the newspapers. Squires withdraws from the negotiations, and flees to South America with the cash down payment rather than face his boss's wrath.
While Shiner is driving her home, Amber is surprised to discover the other winning lottery ticket (the one originally belonging to JoLayne) hidden in an empty chamber of Chub's revolver. With Shiner's reluctant agreement, she decides to do the right thing, and return it to its rightful owner, JoLayne. The crowning irony of the novel is that, throughout the story, Bode and Chub are the only ones who know that they are the rightful owners of the second winning ticket; the other characters act from the belief that there is only one winning ticket in their possession, which eventually results in both tickets winding up with JoLayne.
A chance meeting at the newspaper office brings Katie and Mary Andrea (Krome's girlfriend and wife) into contact, and they go to Grange to say their goodbyes to him, after Katie informs on her husband to the police, leading to his arrest for felony murder.
Chub, unable to attract the attention of passing boats or aircraft, eventually dies of thirst and starvation on Pearl Key.
Krome and JoLayne, now a couple, and the holders of both winning lotto tickets, decide to make their home near Simmons Wood, now safe from development for the rest of their lives.The novel was published in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 (an event which Bode claims was the work of the U.S. government, trying to frame two innocent white men). The bombing inspired a brief media focus on American militia movements, which Hiaasen parodies with the characters of Bode and Chub:
"Bodean James Gazzer had spent thirty-one years perfecting the art of assigning blame. His personal credo - Everything bad that happens is someone else's fault - could, with imagination, be stretched to fit any circumstance. Bode stretched it. The intestinal unrest that occasionally afflicted him surely was the result of drinking milk taken from secretly radiated cows. The roaches in his apartment were planted by his filthy immigrant next-door neighbors. His dire financial plight was caused by runaway bank computers and conniving Wall Street Zionists; his bad luck in the South Florida job market, prejudice against English-speaking applicants. Even the lousy weather had a culprit: air pollution from Canada, diluting the ozone and derailing the jet stream... A series of unhealthy friendships eventually drew Bode Gazzer into the culture of hate and hard-core bigotry. Previously, when dishing out fault for his plight, Bode had targeted generic authority figures - parents, brothers, cops, judges - without considering factors such as race, religion or ethnicity. He'd swung broadly, and without much impact. But xenophobia and racism infused his griping with new vitriol."
"All of [Chub]'s siblings made it to Georgia State University, and [Chub] himself could have gone there, too, had he not by age fifteen already chosen a life of sloth, inebriation and illiteracy... Chub felt an instant kinship with Bode, whose global theories and braided explanations struck a comforting chord. For instance, Chub had been stung when his parents scorned him as a tax cheat, but Bode Gazzer made him feel better by enumerating the many sound reasons why no full-blooded white American male should give a nickel to the Infernal Revenue. Chub brightened to learn that what he'd initially regarded as ducking a debt was, in fact, an act of legitimate civil protest."Bode has decorated his apartment with portraits of David Koresh, David Duke, Gordon Kahl, Randy Weaver, and other anti-government, and/or pro-gun or pro-racism figures. A sticker on his pickup truck's bumper reads "Mark Fuhrman for President". Likewise, Chub's trailer home features stickers and T-shirts with mottoes such as "Fry O.J." and "God Bless Marge Schott".
Krome sarcastically refers to Sinclair as "a regular Ben Bradlee" after Sinclair's timid refusal to let Krome pursue the robbery story.
Moffit refers to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' disastrous raid on Koresh's compound in Waco, Texas.
While evading her husband's process servers, Mary Andrea Finley Krome uses the alias "Julie Channing," as a tribute to her two favorite Broadway performers (presumably Julie Andrews and Stockard Channing).
When JoLayne challenges Tom to name African-American musicians he is fond of, he lists Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Al Green, Billy Preston, "the Hootie guy," (Darius Rucker), and later Robert Cray;
JoLayne jokes that she wouldn't mind accompanying Tom on his planned move to Alaska, even if there are not many other African-Americans living there; "one would be fine, long as it's Luther Vandross."
Tom Krome is feeling unsatisfied with his job because of the downsizing trend affecting most American newspapers. This dissatisfaction is explored fully in the subsequent novel, Basket Case.
Tom's full name is "Thomas Paine Krome", and he shares his first and middle names with famous American pamphleteer Thomas Paine. Hiaasen often creates character names by adding surnames to those of famous (or infamous) historical figures:
Strip Tease: Jesse James Braden and Francis Scott Braden (the latter a reference either to author F. Scott Fitzgerald, composer Francis Scott Key, or several British politicians named Francis Scott);
Stormy Weather: Lester Maddox Parsons, a.k.a. "Snapper"
Basket Case: John Dillinger Burns, a.k.a. Jay Burns
Skinny Dip: Samuel Johnson Hammernut, a.k.a. "Red" Hammernut
The novel briefly examines the ecological history of the Everglades, and the slow destruction of the wetlands caused by the siphoning of water from Lake Okeechobee by Florida agricultural interests, a theme fully explored in Hiaasen's later novel Skinny Dip.