You Know It’s Tough All Over…

…When even the usually reliable Carl Hiaasen can’t crack a joke.

I’m a devoted reader of Hiaasen’s fiction — I’ve even tracked down one of his early co-authored novels.  And while rage at what the greedheads and buffoons have done to his beloved Florida animates everything he writes, he’s managed to retain his capacity for both awe and fun in the face of the absurdity that is that hallucination of a state.

So I had high hopes of some get-away-from-it all when I picked up his latest,  Star Island.  Some old favorites are back, notably Clinton Tyree, (aka Captain, aka Governor, aka Skink), and Chemo (don’t ask).  It has a promising premise, involving a drug-and-fame-addled tone-deaf pop star, a plucky and lovely lookalike, an utterly unlovely papparazo, with a bit of real estate fraud, GBH by sea urchin, and more thrown in for spice.  It looked good in the airport bookshop…

But nothing’s funny.  I finished it over lunch today, and it turns out that no one has any righteous joy at even a temporary triumph over the forces of huckster-evil.  No innocents wise up and save themselves amidst hilarity.  There isn’t really even any righteous revenge:  even when the sea-urchin attackee gets killed, it’s only for being a common or garden variety fraudster; his demise comes off stage; and he leaves us with only minimal Hiassen/Florida flamboyance.

For the rest?  The book reads OK.  There are a few fine set pieces — the best of which was Skink’s assault on the condo-deal tour bus.  Hiaasen’s a pro, and his basic craft hasn’t deserted him.  It’s only his astonished joy at the pure ridiculousness of his chosen home that’s MIA.

My diagnosis?

Hiaasen doesn’t write politics explicitly into his books — politicians, yes, but he mostly focuses on more generally human folly (to which are heir even Florida pols, only nominally accorded co-species status).

But the reality that he and we confront right now seems to have outstripped his capacity to mock.  Florida, as so often, is once again a test tube environment in which national pathologies grow in virulence — and monotonously self-destructive people just aren’t funny.    Just to take one of its most prominent current f**k-ups, Rick Scott is not to be cloaked with grandeur of any of these guys, but irony is a thin shield against the kind of implacable malice and/or stupidity that can find Hiaasen with every morning’s newspaper.

Nothing funny doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless; best not to laugh when there’s so much work to be done between now and November, 2012.  And certainly, Rick Scott — whom I take here as a stand in both for Florida’s woes and the current disastrous state of the GOP nationally — is inducing some serious buyer’s remorse.   But, while I know it is probably just me, reacting to one of my favorite summer authors having a down book, I have to say I was struck by how hard it is even for someone who has made a fine career out of laughing at life’s rich pageant to snap off a smile just now.

Image:  John Singer Sargent (sic! — color me surprised too), Muddy Alligators, 1917.

30 replies
  1. 1
    Culture of Truth says:

    I really like Hiassen, and so am surprised. By the John Singer Sargent, whose work I also like, also.

  2. 2
    Rosalita says:

    Love, love, love Hiaasen. Skin Tight is one of my favorites. It’s too bad reality has gotten so out of control that even he can’t make shit up any more.

  3. 3
    BGinCHI says:

    Tom, you need to read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.

    You were young enough in the 80s that you’ll absolutely dig it. Plus, you’re nerdy.

    Hell of a lot of fun.

  4. 4
    trollhattan says:

    Perhaps some Hiaasen and Dave Barry will lighten the mood.

    In which book was it one of his miscreants had a pitbull head clamped to his arm for so long he named it and began talking to it? Nobody but Hiaasen….

  5. 5
    piratedan says:

    Well Carl is also doing his best to get to the kids, both Hoot and Flush are great stories centered around kids and environmental issues, have always appreciated his scalpel sharp insight as to what motivates and drives folks and how his stories are just crazy enough to make them want to be true.

  6. 6
    BGinCHI says:

    In other FL grim humor: Padgett Powell and Harry Crews.

    Quite a few good writers from that state of total fuckedupness.

  7. 7
    Wendy says:

    I thought some of the scenes with Chemo and Cherry were pretty good. I laughed. I also laughed at the scene with the basketball tickets, because I’m evil that way.

  8. 8
    gogol's wife says:

    OT, but where’s today’s hurricane freakout thread? I need one every day. At least until my power goes out some time on Sunday.

  9. 9
    Dennis SGMM says:


    The book was titled “Sick Puppy.” I enjoyed Hiaasen’s work until it started to seem repetitious to me.

  10. 10
    catclub says:

    @BGinCHI: “Quite a few good writers from that state of total fuckedupness.’

    see: Mississippi.

  11. 11
    BGinCHI says:

    @catclub: Roger that.

    Like musicians from TX.

    Some mad alchemy there.

  12. 12
    lou says:

    A lot of Hiassen’s work is inspired by real life. As he has said, you can’t get weirder than reality in Florida. Dave Barry once did a Miami Herald Sunday magazine piece on why stories in Florida transmorgify into the utterly bizarre. his examples included rare disease child victim Ronnie DeSillers and his mom’s theft of donations; and Thomas Root, a pilot who turned out to be faking his unconsciousness during an amazing rescue. Elian Gonzalez no doubt would have been included if Barry hadn’t already written the article 7 years earlier.

    Skin Tight was inspired, for example, by a real pol getting drunk and causing a scene outside a strip joint. (I remember it well, I was a kid growing up in the pol’s district at the time).

    So if this is a depressing book, that means Fla has not just skirted the edge, but gone over it.

  13. 13
    mellowjohn says:

    as lily tomlin said in the search for signs of intelligent life in the universe, “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.”

  14. 14
    honus says:

    I believe Harry Crews is actually from Georgian. As far as Texas and musicians, Ray Benson and his band started out in Paw Paw, West Virginia.
    I’ve always agreed with Crews about soccer. And the difference between love and true love.

  15. 15
    PPOG Penguin says:

    Yes, “Star Island” is weak compared to his others. Part of it might be that he chose too easy a target. There’s another writer, Christopher Brookmyre, who is like the Carl Hiaasen of Scotland, who wrote a series of scathingly funny satires until he got round to doing one on the arms industry, which I expected would inspire him to new heights of scathingness, but it turned out to be both stupid and dull. It was like he struggled to think of anything that could be more appalling and ludicrous than the reality. Similarly with “Star Island,” it felt like Hiaasen never really found anything about manufactured pop that he could successfully exaggerate, so he ended up just telling the tale and eventually losing interest.

    If you like Hiaasen’s early work, by the way, do check out Brookmyre. “Country of the Blind” and “The Sacred Art of Stealing” are probably good starters though the characters do have some history from previous books, but all his early books are good fun. (His later books are a bit of a lottery — caveat emptor.) You might also like Colin Bateman (“Divorcing Jack”).

  16. 16
    Aimai says:

    Agree about the book. I think it’s because he was fixated on a particular theme in advance: something something about celebrity culture. Frankly I think reality and the Murdoch situation–the bugging of the dead girls phone, sort of overtook his fiction. The whole time I was reading it I kept thinking that it would have been much funnier and more gruesome if he’d realized the real villains aren’t one off little papparazis but roger aisles and Murdoch types.

  17. 17
    Sko Hayes says:

    I love Hiassen, my cousin gave me one of his books as a birthday present and I laughed all the way through it. I think I’ve read pretty much everything he’s written, and liked all of them. But every author has a bad book once in awhile.
    As for Florida politics, my republican stepmother is about done with republicans in Florida (she voted for Alex Sink), and Rick Scott might just put her over the edge into never voting for one again, mostly because of his anti-environmental stance, and corruption. I’m goading her on, of course.

  18. 18
    TheStone says:

    I would derive much more comfort from the buyer’s remorse regarding Scott and the rest of them if it wasn’t for the fact that said remorse never seems to last longer than a road flare. We’ve seen this story before, they just keep adding more and more fucked-up endings to the special edition DVD.

  19. 19
    dbcooper says:

    Carl didn’t jump the shark, it jumped him. Really, how can anyone beat the fact that Sick Rott is now the actual governor of Florida? It defies rational explanation as did most of Hiassen’s early work.

    Just sayin.

  20. 20
    abo gato says:

    Oh my, that Sargent painting is amazing! Man, how I wish I could paint like that.

    Wow, just wow.

    And Hiaasen is a lot of fun to read.

  21. 21
    RossInDetroit says:

    I read Lucky You last summer and Nature Girl this summer. The latter has a few yucks but I was left disappointed by the characters’ general fucked-upness with a few exceptions.
    The action’s pretty wacky but the climax is 3 X too long to sustain continuous wackiness.

  22. 22
    Jager says:

    When my old company moved its corporate headquarters from Boston to West Palm, the comptroller had a classic line:
    “A lot of shit washes up on the beach in Florida”.

    Fucked up politicians, people and the weather is only nice about 2 months of the year!

  23. 23
    trollhattan says:

    @Dennis SGMM:

    That’s the one, thanks! My first of his and the one that lasted so yeah, it’s possible the formula wears after awhile. Don’t know that I’d be able to read him at all if I lived there. Betty Cracker’s stories nearly always make me cringe.

  24. 24
    Chris Wolf says:

    Tim Dorsey is my new go-to guy.

  25. 25
    Hob says:

    I haven’t read Hiassen, but I’m not sure your theory about humor holds up in general. I’m thinking of Robert Stone’s A Hall of Mirrors – stupid destructive political pathology is front and center, it’s dark dark dark, and it’s one of his funniest books.

    Stone’s mid-1960s wingnuts unfortunately still sound pretty timely, too. Best line: a right-wing operative has been discovered orchestrating a race riot to use as a rallying cry for racists, and he protests: “We’re presenting a situation that’s really in progress. … Just because we’re making it happen doesn’t mean it isn’t really happening!”

  26. 26
    karen marie says:

    When I lived in the West Fenway, one of my greatest joys was going over to the MFA and sitting in the Sargent room and just soaking them in. It never got old.

  27. 27
    Some guy in Austin says:

    I read a few Hiassen books. I enjoyed the first few, but it seemed a bit formulaic. Maybe I picked the wrong books. Then I moved to Tim Dorsey for more Florida fun. I read most of his Serge Storm books. I’m reading Mark Haskell Smith now.

  28. 28
    joel hanes says:

    Tom, may I say how much I enjoy the language in the front-page post?

    One of the unsung merits of blogging culture (and the Usenet culture that preceded it) is the way in which it spurs some few to hone their English to a shiny surgical instrument.

  29. 29
    steve says:

    My first of his and the one that lasted so yeah, it’s possible the formula wears after awhile. Don’t know that I’d be able to read him at all if I lived there.

    I was born and raised here in florida, I like Hiaasen. People think his books are bizarre, but to me they feel perfectly normal.

    Normal means something different here.

  30. 30
    Penh says:

    Looks like #25 and #28 beat me to the Tim Dorsey recommendation, so I’ll just echo it. Although it’s a little depressing to go back to his earliest books and see how reality is catching up with his over-the-top satire. Still, Serge’s joy at the glory of Florida history is as strong as ever, and you’ll learn a truly stunning amount of Florida trivia.

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