My introduction to the novels of Carl Hiaasen came with the publication of his first book, Tourist Season, in 1986. I was then — as I am now — completely enamored with everything that makes up South Florida; and reading a crime/mystery/comic novel about Miami, that also captured the wild kinetics of the northernmost capital of South America, was a natural. And it was supposed to be the funniest novel of the year.
I tried to get into Tourist Season three separate times — and that was the last strike. It did nothing for me. At all. It was a void. I couldn’t read it. At all. And it wasn’t funny. At all.
I have only a few rules. Never eat anything at a strip club. Never walk naked into a cold doorknob. Never stand beneath a thirty-foot tall water buffalo. And: The three literary strikes rule.
And so I put it on the shelf, and moved on.
Fast forward to 1993.
Despite my initial disinterest in his writing, Hiaasen had been racking up the best sellers, and I picked up his new Strip Tease in the bookstore and decided to give it my ultimate Should I bother with this book? test.
I read the first line.
I finished the first paragraph.
I stood there and read and read, my neck slowly aching, a big smile widening on my face, and then I burst out in laughter at the end of the chapter and said, “Yeah, I’m buying this one.”
Funny stuff. Insane funny stuff.
Strip Tease opened the door for me, and I finally devoured Tourist Season with its angry eco-terrorist, Skip Wiley — and it was great!
Fast forward to 2010. I’ve now read all of Hiaasen’s novels, save for Lucky Girl and his children’s books. Like Tourist Season 24 years beforehand, I could not get into Lucky Girl. It just wasn’t very funny. Three times I tried. Three times I put it down.
And now, Star Island — a wacky, zany ensemble novel surrounding the secret double of Cherry Pye, a Lindsay Lohan-esque starlet, who is kidnapped by a paparazzi. It’s filled with unique characters that have become a Hiaasen trademark, such as Chemo, who has a weed-whacker attached to one arm (he first appeared in Hiaasen’s Skin Tight) and Skink, a former Florida governor who has gone eco-native, and who appears in about every other Hiaasen novel, much to my delight.
Star Island is sure to engage dedicated Hiaasen fans — really, it’s more of Hiaasen’s brand, and that’s what fans want: the Brand — but despite the characters, the crisp dialogue, the presence of Skink — who deserves his own damn book, Carl! — and the over-the-top action, Star Island has one major and, to me, unforgivable flaw.
Like its predecessor, Lucky Girl . . . it’s just not funny.
Missing is the wicked insight and satire of Native Tongue, which skewers Florida’s Disney World mentality. Missing are the set scenes and characterizations that cracked me up in Strip Tease, like Congressman Dilbeck — “My boots are full of Vaseline,” says Dilbeck one night, his only other clothing a black cowboy hat. — or the opening chapter, where a drunk patron at the Eager Beaver (love it) staggers onto the stage and plants his fingers worshipfully into a stripper’s butt cheeks. Missing is the wicked glee the reader experiences as tourists are killed (deservedly?) by strangulation with rubber alligators in Tourist Season.
Star Island is more of the same, yet it’s empty of the soul his better novels have: a soul of respect for the protagonists and their causes — a soul that reaches out to readers and pulls them in.
It’s story with little heart — much like Cherry Pye herself, who is all ADHD action and little consciousness — and that’s Star Island‘s fatal, empty flaw.