[2 December 2010]
Carl Hiaasen long ago cornered the market on Floridian weirdness. Ever since his first novel, 1986’s Tourist Season, he has been relentless in spoofing real estate developers, crooked politicos, clueless retirees, dimwitted con men and airheaded sorority girls. Meanwhile, his none-too-subtle positioning has revealed a sympathy for Native Americans, environmentalists, honest cops—anyone who sees the Florida landscape, its history and its natural beauty, as something more than simply an opportunity for personal enrichment.
Inevitably, such honest people are outnumbered by the charlatans and operators both in and outside of politics. Decency may carry the day—in Hiaasen’s novels it usually does—but the surrounding milieu is such a quagmire of corruption that there is little doubt that the respite is temporary. Battles may be won, in other words, but the war rages on.
As Hiaasen’s oeuvre has grown, so too has the list of recognizable tropes and types that populate his novels. There’s the soulless real estate developer, who has no appreciation for the patch of wilderness that he’s ready to pave over; there’s the honest, pretty woman who is constantly underestimated by others because of her looks; there’s the rugged working-class guy whose inherent decency is reflected in his appreciation of nature; the out-of-towner who is in over his or head; the compromised politician with a skeleton full of closets. There’s the guy with some freakish physical characteristic; in the case of Star Island, he’s a scar-faced bodyguard with a weed-whacker grafted onto his right arm.
Even as these types have codified, the emotional impact of the novels has lessened. Early books like Tourist Season and Double Whammy contained genuine emotional impact—real heart was mixed in with all the sardonic observation and outright cynicism. There’s a lot less of 2000’s Sick Puppy or 2004’s Skinny Dip, and just about none at all in Star Island. Wryness and sarcasm, sure, and irony by the bucketload. Freakish characters? Check. Outrageous situations? Check. Genuine emotional engagement? Eh—not so much.
This isn’t to say that the book isn’t enjoyable. Hiaasen’s books are always enjoyable. He stacks the deck so meticulously, they couldn’t be any other way.
Star Island is concerned with the ups and downs—mostly downs—of a Britney-esque teen pop idol, born Cheryl Bunterman but dubbed Cherry Pye by her celebrity-obsessed mother. Cherry has—no surprise—not an ounce of talent, but this hasn’t prevented her—no surprise #2—from being massively successful. Of course, this being Hiaasenworld, Cherry is also a thorough mess, strung out or drunk or, preferably, both, besides being sexually impulsive, foul-mouthed, whiny, spoiled, and altogether the most disagreeable presence one is ever likely to experience.
Cherry’s periodic forays into discombobulation and detox are masked from the public by the presence of her double, a would-be actress named Ann Da Lusia who fulfills the requisite beautiful-but-smart role in the narrative. It’s Ann’s job to make public appearances when Cherry is too incapacitated to do so, which happens often enough to earn her $800 a week. Cherry’s management feels that the singer’s image would be destroyed should word of her debauchery ever become public, so it looks like Ann has steady work, at least until Cherry self-destructs. Which might not take took long, the way things are going.
The plot kicks in courtesy of a sleazy papparazzo named Bang Abbott, who takes an unhealthy interest in Cherry, then in Ann, then in Cherry again, and who hatches a plot to enrich himself—no surprise #3—at the expense of the star. Balancing his plot is the above-mentioned weed-whacker-enhanced bodyguard, Chemo, whose specialty is intimidation.
Hiaasen’s prose crackles with irony. As long as you don’t mind overmuch being told what to think about whom, his sentences flow like water. About one minor character we’re told, “As his nickname suggested, Ruben ‘Whaddup’ Coyle was not a man of broad vocabulary.” Of another: “Marian DeGregorio was on a mission to scatter the ashes of her late husband, Victor, in the Atlantic Ocean. Victor had been dead going on seven years and Marian DeGregorio’s boyfriend was sick of looking at the urn, which was kept in the same kitchen cupboard with the Sanka.”
Longtime Hiaasen readers will also note the return of a couple key characters form previous novels. It would be a spoiler to name names, but they are familiar enough to be immediately recognizable. If you’ve read the author before and are returning for another round, then it is likely you won’t mind seeing the familiar faces again.
That, in a nutshell, is Hiaasen: if you liked him before, you probably will this time, too. He’s not an author who’s going to stretch the reader into new emotional or thematic territory with every new release; he’s going to cover familiar ground, with a few twists and grotesque, gothic embellishments.