Star Island, by Carl Hiaasen, Sphere, RRP£7.99, 469 pages
American crime writer Carl Hiaasen’s first solo novel, Tourist Season, opened with the dismembered body of the chief of the Miami chamber of commerce turning up in a suitcase, slathered with sun cream and dressed in a Hawaiian shirt. It was a sort of declaration of intent: not only of Hiaasen’s mix of violence and merriment but of the satirical territory – his tools sharpened by years as an investigative hack – that he planned to plough.
Exuberantly inventive in the first few books, Hiaasen’s work has now more or less settled into a schtick. That’s no bad thing for a crime novelist and it has earned Hiaasen an enormous international following. You open each new one knowing what to expect: a chirpy, knowing prose style, a farcical plot, and a cast of coloratura grotesques comprising sex-crazed politicians; small-time criminals of pathetic ambition; corrupt property developers; and unexpectedly aggressive wildlife.
The good guys are world-weary but profoundly principled; the baddies violent, corrupt and surpassingly stupid – and their comeuppance at the hands of the righteous will doubtless involve a series of agonising physical indignities. Most memorable, perhaps, was Double Whammy, in which a steroid-crazed thug spent much of the novel with the severed head of a pitbull clamped to his arm. In Star Island something involving a sea-urchin and some genitals takes place that is so unspeakable I hesitate to relate it.
Hiaasen combines brutal slapstick with an encompassing sentimentality. There’s never a hint of moral ambiguity in his books. His signature walk-on is Clinton Tyree, aka “Skink”. A former governor of Florida accessorised with a frequently removed glass eye and a floral shower cap, Skink now lives in the Everglades eating road-kill and committing occasional righteous acts of environmental terrorism. Skink is a total sweetie-pie.
Another recurring character is the Rice-Krispie-faced thug-for-hire “Chemo”. When we first met Chemo he was merely the victim of the plastic surgery disaster that gave him his nickname. Since then he has lost an arm to a barracuda and replaced it with a garden strimmer. We sympathise with his dreams of a better life. In the context of this novel, even Chemo seems a little bit high-minded.
Star Island tells the story of “Cherry Pye”, a dim, bubblegum starlet of incontinent sexual appetites on the pharmaceutical high road to an early death. When we first meet her, she has swallowed “an unwise mix of vodka, Red Bull, hydrocodone, birdseed and stool softener – in all respects a routine South Beach 911 call”. Her nemesis-cum-number-one-fan is a sweaty paparazzo called Bang Abbott. Enter Ann Deluisa, who exists to keep the former from the latter: she earns a hardly ennobling living as Cherry Pye’s lookalike, swanning out of the front entrance while Cherry is carted into A&E or rehab through the kitchen doors. Throw in a sleazy svengali, a pair of evilly ambitious showbiz parents, a pair of even more evilly ambitious showbiz PRs, a botched tattoo, some kidnapping, blackmail, and the Hiaasen kitchen sink, and we’re away.
And lest we think that all Carl Hiaasen novels exist in a perpetual present, the global economic crisis is at least somewhere in the background. Chemo has a back-story selling Ninja mortgages, and a subplot involving (what else?) kickback-enhanced environmentally unfriendly leisure developments is affected by the tanking markets.
But in all its important particulars Hiaasen-land remains Hiaasen-land. So much the better. There was a period in the early noughties when the rage seemed to overtake the mirth but his good temper has returned in Star Island. Bright, breezy and hectic, Star Island wears its pessimism lightly. It is, in fact, a blast.
Sam Leith is author of ‘You Talkin’ To Me?: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama’ (Profile)
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