:: Article

American Romance

By Max Dunbar.


Star Island, Carl Hiaasen, Sphere 2010

Many literary and commercial novelists have tried the celebrity satire novel. The results aren’t always memorable, partly because – as on so many other areas – real life is far ahead of satire and fiction. No novelist would dare invent a character like Charlie Sheen, and if s/he did, the editor would obliterate Sheen’s sections with red pen, on the grounds that no reader would believe that such a person existed.

Having spent decades as a reporter for the Miami Herald, Carl Hiaasen knows how extraordinary real life can be. Star Island doesn’t have the coherence and depth of his earlier novels – new readers should be pointed to Stormy Weather and Skinny Dip – but it’s as compulsive a story as ever.

There’s nothing particularly deep or remarkable about singer Cherry Pye but nothing vain or unpleasant either: ‘nothing to suggest that the former Cheryl Bunterman was complicated, misunderstood or even slightly exploited.’ At twenty-two, Cherry is already beginning the superstar’s downward curve. Headhunted, Britney Spears-style, from a Disneyesque kids special by a promoter with ‘a criminal fondness for underage girls’, Cherry is used to doing more or less what she wants in a life without boundaries, and her singing career is a jaunty stagger from debauch to rehab and back again. Her behaviour is so erratic that her family and managers have recruited a stunt double, a struggling actor named Ann DeLusia who stands in for Cherry when she is too wrecked or comatose to walk the red carpet.

Although her career’s in downturn, Cherry is nevertheless stalked by Claude ‘Bang’ Abbott, a Pulitzer winner turned paparazzo. He’s convinced that what with all the drinking and drugging, Cherry isn’t long for this world, and that her death ‘would be chronicled as an American tragedy, the death of a beautiful and ruined innocence… ‘

Bang Abbott wanted to be the one who documented this tawdry decline in photographs, which he grandiosely imagined as one day hanging in some museum of hip modern art, next to those of Avedon or Annie Leibovitz. And of course, he wanted the body-bag shot.

After she seduces him, out of pure boredom and curiosity, on a Gulfstream jet, Bang Abbott becomes fixated on Cherry Pye to the point where he kidnaps her. Needless to say, Bang snatches the stunt double by mistake.

And we’re off into the Hiaasen wilderness, full of people ripping each other off, weapons that misfire at crucial moments, Samsonite suitcases tossed from hand to hand – all against the backdrop of Everglades beauty eaten, piece by piece, by property development and urban growth. Place is crucial to Hiaasen: what drives and sustains both his fiction and journalism is the corruption that allows swampland, beaches and mangroves to be destroyed for condos and TK Maxx outlets. Hiaasen followers will be delighted to see Clinton ‘Skink’ Tyree, a Vietnam war hero who served a brief period as Florida’s governor in the 1970s, and who quit after being driven almost mad by the ruination of paradise:

He’d fled the governor’s mansion with his values intact but his idealism extinguished, his patience smashed to dust. Politics had scrambled his soul much worse than the war, and he left behind in Tallahassee not only his name but the discredited strategy of forbearance and compromise. The cherished wild places of his childhood had vanished under cinder blocks and asphalt, and so, too, had the rest of the state been transformed – hijacked by greedy suckworms disguised as upright citizens. From swampy lairs Skink would strike back whenever an opportunity arose.

Said to be based on a schoolfriend of Hiaasen’s who committed suicide, Skink prefers a hermit’s life in deep wilderness, reading Baudelaire and Tennyson, eating crocodile from the national park, and possum from the roads. When he does emerge into the civilised side of what Hiaasen calls ‘the moral seam of the universe’ it’s as part of a mission: to punish wrongdoers, or to help strangers and animals in distress. You would say Skink has a Quixotic streak, but Cervantes’s novel was about the limits and failures of chivalry and idealism. Skink is a successful knight errant, a Don Quixote who wins all his battles – even if he’s ultimately losing the war.

I can’t discuss this book without mentioning another old Hiaasen friend. The hitman Chemo originally turned up in the 1989 novel Skin Tight. A man who stands six foot nine, Chemo derives his nickname from a freak dermatology accident, which has left his face a peeling ruin. During his adventures in ’89 Chemo lost a hand to a barricuda; dismissing standard prostheses as too boring, Chemo instead opted for a ‘Weed Whacker’ – a gardening tool with a rotary blade. Chemo likes to unnerve people during business meetings by unsheathing the Weed Whacker and reducing any available potted plants to shreds. Released after a long prison stretch for various murders (including that of the plastic surgeon who destroyed his face) Chemo is drafted in as Cherry’s babysitter and bodyguard. He resists her sexual advances, and corrects her grammar with a cattle prod. Despite Chemo’s legendary coldness, and almost total lack of human feeling, you can’t help liking the guy, and being glad that Hiaasen let him live; most Carl Hiaasen villains are killed in baroque and spectacular fashion.

As I’ve said, Star Island is one for the fans and completists, more a book of laughter than the serious explorations of nature and humanity that made some of the earlier novels such classics. Critics have called Hiaasen America’s finest satirical novelist. But this ain’t satire – it’s romance.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 19th, 2011.