“Basket Case” by Carl Hiaasen

In the Florida crime writer's latest hilarious outing, a burnt-out reporter on the obit beat gets mixed up with a Courtney Love-style rock widow.

Topics: Books,

Full disclosure: I was laughing at Carl Hiaasen’s “Basket Case” long before he got to the Salon joke. Jack Tagger, the former ace reporter who’s been marking time on the obituary desk of his Florida newspaper, is interviewing a woman who makes her living with a Web site called “Meter Maid-Cam.” She dresses up like a cop for the paying customers who like to be disciplined, and here’s how she explains how she got started in the business: “My girlfriend helped set it all up, got me my own Web site and 900 number and so forth. Her deal is Convent-Cam, she and three other girls dress up as Dominican nuns. You mighta read about ‘em in Salon.”

“Basket Case” is this year’s model of the annual Hiaasen novel that arrives shortly after the holidays to clear your head and get you over your midwinter funk. After all that enforced goodwill toward men, we can all use a post-Christmas dose of cheerful cynicism and Dr. Hiaasen is on the case.

“Basket Case” is a little more streamlined than earlier models. Choosing to tell the story first-person, in Jack Tagger’s voice, doesn’t allow for Hiaasen’s usual mad leaping from wacko to scuzzball. At peak form, Hiaasen makes you feel that all the world, or at least all of South Florida, is a sideshow and every occupant is striving to be named freak of the month. Hiaasen’s last few books haven’t quite hit that pitch. He has yet to equal his small classic of American comic writing “Stormy Weather,” a book that achieves a slapstick heartlessness that would have made W.C. Fields smile.

The rock ‘n’ roll milieu of “Basket Case” isn’t quite right. Jack is investigating the scuba-diving death of a former rock star, Jimmy Stoma, late of Jimmy and the Slut Puppies, who may or may not have been done in by his trashy, grasping-to-be-a-star widow, Cleo Rio (who’s obviously been slapped together out of the nastier Courtney Love rumors).

Maybe it’s fitting that 47-year-old Jack’s pop-cultural touchstones would be a little dated, but Hiaasen needs to be hipper. “Basket Case” shares a problem with Elmore Leonard’s “Be Cool” in that the rock references are so insistently mainstream that they seem more like the product of cramming than firsthand knowledge. It would be OK if rock ‘n’ roll stopped with Aerosmith for Jack Tagger if you also didn’t get the feeling that it stopped there for Hiaasen, too.

When Jack says, “I switch to FM and doze off serenely to Bonnie Raitt,” you think, what the hell else can you do to Bonnie Raitt? (Couldn’t somebody have slipped Hiaasen some Sleater-Kinney, some Outkast, some White Stripes, some Aaliyah?) Hiaasen works hard to get at the sleaziness of the corporate rock world. Trouble is, there’s nothing truly, scabrously funny, nothing dirty-minded enough, in his jokes about flashy suits and drug habits and little ponytails and socially inappropriate blow jobs. But none of these flaws do much to challenge Hiaasen’s status as one of the most entertaining writers working, or to keep “Basket Case” from being an often hilarious diversion.

One of the reasons it’s so easy to overlook the thinness of the book’s take on rock ‘n’ roll is that who did what to Jimmy Stoma isn’t real Hiaasen’s main concern here. He’s always been less interested in murderers than in rapists — that is, the politicians and developers who have turned Florida’s natural beauty into a tourist hell. He’s after a different kind of violation in “Basket Case”: the CEOs who have subsumed newspapers into huge conglomerates and cut the balls off American journalism in the process.

Jack, whose deadbeat gig feeds his obsession with early death, has landed at the obit desk after using a shareholders’ meeting as the occasion to publicly tell off the smoothie who purchased his paper. Whenever this pomaded suit — name of Race Maggad III or, as Jack calls him, Master Race Maggad — wanders into the book you can feel Hiaasen’s blood pressure rise and his tail start to rattle.

When Hiaasen details how cuts in newspaper staffing affect the reporting of the news, it’s clear that he’s speaking from his own experience (he’s written a column for the Miami Herald for years), and as in “Team Rodent,” his murderous pamphlet-length rant on Walt Disney World of a few years back, he’s loaded for bear, or at least for Gucci’d weasel. When Hiaasen writes about political corruption, corporate greed and the dumbing down of media, he manages to be on the side of the angels without ever once falling into liberal self-righteousness (maybe because most liberals are too tame to entertain his fantasies of what it would be like to kill the bastards he writes about).

Hiaasen’s rage is always tempered by humor, and it’s all the more lethal because it’s been allowed to cool off. It’s that rage that he needs to channel again, not just for intermittent paragraphs, but as the driving force behind an entire book. The swipes at the insidious effect of mega-mergers on news reporting that he takes in “Basket Case” suggest that, for his next book, he doesn’t have to stray far from the city desk. Hiaasen unleashed on the idiocy of journalism in the corporate age could be lethal. And I’m sure the Dominican nuns would agree with me.

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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