Book review: Carl Hiaasen’s ‘Star Island’

Special to the Los Angeles Times

In real life, good things happen to bad people, but Carl Hiaasen, an Old Testament moralist disguised as a comedian, arranges things differently in his novels. Retribution, hilarious but often gruesome, hounds the vacuous celebrities, crooked pols and environmental despoilers who populate his latest satire, “Star Island.”

It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that if Hiaasen weren’t a bestselling writer, he would emulate one of his recurring characters, Skink (formerly Florida Gov. Clinton Tyree), who lurks in a mangrove swamp next to a crocodile refuge and wages guerrilla war on developers and others who have escaped conventional justice.

Skink happens to be on the scene when an obscure actress named Ann DeLusia wrecks her car in the Florida Keys. Ann has been working as a “double” for a famous if talentless pop singer whose stage name is Cherry Pye. When Cherry is too drunk or stoned to appear in public, Ann subs for her, ducking into and out of nightclubs to give the paparazzi its daily quota of pictures.

Cherry is unaware that Ann exists, but Ann’s disappearance after the car crash is a major headache for Cherry’s handlers — her exploitive and enabling parents, her horn-dog music producer, her Botoxed twin publicists and her 7-foot bodyguard, Chemo, whose prosthetic left hand (the original was bitten off by a barracuda) is an electronic weed-whacker.

If the world finds out about Ann, and if Ann spills the beans about Cherry’s unsavory sexual exploits and drug overdoses — not to mention that Cherry can’t sing at all, only lip-sync — it could ruin Cherry’s imminent “comeback” tour and derail the gravy train for good.

Though Skink is a violent man and old enough to be Ann’s grandfather, he has a soft spot for the actress — a rare nice person in the moral, cultural wasteland Hiaasen depicts. Soon, Ann needs his help again: She is kidnapped by a sweaty, obese paparazzo, Bang Abbott, who won a Pulitzer Prize as a news photographer before he found his true talent as a bottom-feeder. Bang and Cherry once had sex on a plane when she was blotto; she doesn’t remember the encounter, but he does, and he yearns for her inconsolably.

When Bang realizes that Ann isn’t Cherry but only her double, he tries to arrange a swap: Ann’s life for an intimate photo shoot with Cherry, It doesn’t take Ann long to figure out that her life, in the view of Cherry’s entourage, is about the least important item in the equation.

“Star Island” is Hiaasen’s 12th novel, following “Nature Girl.” It may go on a bit too long, but Hiaasen’s command of the machinery of farce is impressive. The subplots dovetail with satisfying clicks, and the cast of characters includes colorful oddities such as Fremont Spores, a lonely geek who listens to police scanners 24/7 and sells information to anyone who will pay him — reporters, detectives, gangsters or paparazzi like Bang.

Over the whole, frenzied, decadent scene, Hiaasen broods like God, weighing guilt, calibrating punishments. Cherry isn’t evil: She’s just an airhead, so she gets off relatively lightly. Bang is sleazy but pitiable, and he doesn’t hurt Ann, so a buttocks-scalping by Chemo’s weed-whacker may suffice. However, Jackie Sebago, a particularly obnoxious briber of politicians and builder of condos in fragile shoreline areas, deserves the death sentence. The only question is how. A spiny, poisonous sea urchin attached to his scrotum? A fishing spear through the heart? Or both?

Hiaasen’s secret — the reason most of this is funny — is his gift for precise and voluminous specifics. In the opening chapter, for instance, Bang, responding to a rumor that Cherry has overdosed, stakes out an ambulance parked behind a South Beach hotel. Overdosed on what? Cocaine or heroin won’t do. Instead, Cherry has “swallowed an unwise mix of vodka, Red Bull, hydrocodone, birdseed and stool softener.”

Scene after scene, Hiaasen keeps up this kind of antic embroidery, proving not only that God may be in the details but also that comedy most certainly is.

Harris is the author of “The Chieu Hoi Saloon: A Novel.”