Schemers & Scammers in Hiassen’s Florida
Carl Hiassen’s face, as he looks out at you from book jackets, has changed little over the years: he has a few wrinkles and the wavy hair now has a touch of gray, but the warm and friendly smile remains unchanged. Yet, he is the angriest of men. Hiassen’s great success as a novelist has only sharpened his indignation at the cheaters and scammers among us, the greedy politicians and businessmen who have turned his native Florida into a theme park. In his books he creates memorable bottom feeders whose comeuppances are nearly biblical in their aptness. He is a very funny writer, but behind the satire is a strong message to be good or else. In Star Island, Hiassen’s latest excursion into the swampland of human folly, he points his harpoon toward real estate schemers, the paparazzi, and the cult of celebrity. Although it is not one of his best, Star Island does bring back two of my favorite characters from earlier books: Clinton Tyree, aka Skink, and Blondell Tatum, aka Chemo.
Years earlier Skink, the idealistic governor of Florida, fled Tallahassee before the end of his term, distraught by the magnitude of political corruption surrounding him and repelled by civilization in general. His disappearance is now just a blip on the political landscape. Skink lives in the mangrove swamps of the Florida Keys, subsisting on road kill and owning no clothes except for a filthy trench coat and a shower cap for those rare occasions when he feels it inappropriate to be naked. His great love is the land, and his enemy is the real estate developer. ”The cherished wild places of his childhood had vanished under cinderblocks and asphalt … hijacked by greedy suckworms disguised as upright citizens.” To the dismay of the one or two people who know of his existence, Skink occasionally metes out a rude justice to those who abuse the land or its creatures.
Like the governor, Chemo is outside the norm. He is nearly seven feet tall and painfully thin. His face, disfigured by an elderly dermatologist who had a stroke while performing minor surgery on his nose, draws stares and taunts. He is further disfigured when a hungry barracuda snaps off his hand. Feeling the need to give himself an advantage in life, he has a Weed Whacker surgically attached to his arm in place of the missing hand.
These two characters come together in a rather silly plot to save the life, if not the career, of the empty-headed young singer Cherry Pye, nee Cheryl Gail Bunterman. Cherry, in Miami preparing for another comeback tour, is beautiful and vain, “a simpleton, shallow as a thimble.” Her talent, flimsy but carefully packaged and hyped, has provided Cherry, her parents, and her three shiftless brothers with a posh lifestyle. When her voracious appetites for drugs, alcohol, and sex with just about anybody threaten to derail this arrangement, her record producer hires the lovely Ann DeLusia, an aspiring actress, to be Cherry’s body double. Ann’s thankless job is to appear at celebrity functions, acting as Cherry, while Cherry is vomiting in the toilet or having her stomach pumped in an emergency room. The plan goes awry when Bang Abbott, an obsessive paparazzo, decides to kidnap Cherry for the photo shoot of a lifetime, and he kidnaps Ann by mistake.
Meanwhile, the downturn in Florida real estate is making life uncomfortable for the likes of Jackie Sebago. Jackie has been caught short by the downturn, having otherwise spent the millions of dollars given to him by a dozen “rich, fretful white guys” to invest in a condominium development. For this project Jackie has torn down twenty acres of red mangrove trees so that the condo owners will have ocean views. With the money gone and the acreage bare, he is exposed not only to the wrath of his investors but also to Skink’s fury at such desecration. Jackie is just a means to draw Skink into the main plot; he remains a scheming weasel long after Skink’s rough justice leaves him in excruciating and undignified pain.
Almost all the characters in Star Island survive to dance another day, even though all of them are forced to go to a big party at a club called, revoltingly, Pubes. Here Mr. Hiassen ties it all together, meting out rewards to the few good guys and punishments of varying severity to the numerous baddies. I was sorry that he killed off Methane Drudge, just because the name has a Dickensian greatness to it, but he left Fremont Spore and Ruben “Whaddup” Coyle alive to come back and bottom feed in another book.