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Review: In 'Star Island,' Carl Hiaasen points satiric laser at culture of celebrity excess

Star Island kicks off with an ambulance arriving at the chic Stefano Hotel, "summoned to treat a twenty-two-year-old white female who had swallowed an unwise mix of vodka, Red Bull, hydrocodone, birdseed and stool softener — in all respects a routine South Beach 911 call. . . ."

Ah, it's heartwarming to see Carl Hiaasen back in Miami.

The last novel for grownups by the big dog of Florida crime writers and satirists, Nature Girl in 2006, was set across the state in the Ten Thousand Islands. Hiaasen brought along his scorching sensibility, but back on his home turf he finds a wealth of targets.

One aspect of that 911 call that's not routine is that an EMT finds a photographer crouched in his ambulance, offering $1,000 for a chance to shoot the patient.

The photographer is Bang Abbott, who while working for the St. Petersburg Times won a Pulitzer Prize for a riveting photo of a tourist being attacked by a shark at Clearwater Beach — then lost his job when it was revealed he had set the shot up by planting a bag of chum just offshore. He has embraced his disgrace by becoming a full-time paparazzo.

The birdseed eater is one Cherry Pye, formerly Cheryl Bunterman, a dangerously rich pop singer who started out cute and wholesome at age 14 and ended up — well, being the frequent subject of 911 calls, thanks to a bottomless appetite for drugs, alcohol and unfortunate sexual contacts.

Actually, Cherry isn't exactly a pop singer. She's more of a pop lip-syncher, her vocal talent being so pitiful even Auto-Tune couldn't rescue it. But she has an army of fans who love her almost as much as the gossip tabloids and websites do — hence the presence in that ambulance of Abbott, whose determination to get the ultimate shocking shot of Cherry is beginning to verge on obsession.

If all of this reminds you of anyone named Britney, Lindsay, et al., it's supposed to. But Cherry's handlers — her greedy and cynical parents, her creepy promoter, her Botox-addicted twin publicists — are desperate to keep a lid on her bad behavior so her young fans will support her new CD and concert tour. To that end, they've hired a double, Ann DeLusia, a struggling actor with a striking resemblance to Cherry. Ann dresses up and gets photographed walking into celebrity-studded parties and clubs, so no one knows Cherry is actually in rehab yet again.

The key, of course, is keeping Ann's existence a secret; not even Cherry knows about her. But when Ann takes off for the Keys for a few days' vacation, her car flies into the mangroves when she swerves to avoid a strange figure crouched over a roadkilled animal — a man wearing only a trench coat and a shower cap.

One of the greatest pleasures of Star Island is the return of a couple of Hiaasen's most memorable characters. Readers of his earlier books will recognize that man in the shower cap as Skink, a one-eyed, swamp-dwelling hermit known to wreak strange vengeance upon offenders against the environment.

In a past life he was Clinton Tyree, governor of Florida, an improbably elected idealist who, when he was confronted with the depraved depths of everyday corruption in Tallahassee, promptly disappeared. Skink rescues and befriends Ann, who before returning to Miami helps him with his latest act of revenge, on a developer who thinks a good way to sell waterfront lots is to chop down the mangroves. (He ends up with a sea urchin in his undies, with dire and very specifically described results.)

Also back, as Cherry's newest bodyguard, is Blondell Wayne Tatum, a.k.a. Chemo. In Hiaasen's 1989 novel Skin Tight, Chemo's occupation — hit man — landed him in jail for several murders, although not until after a barracuda bit off his hand. In a ripped-from-the-headlines reintroduction, Hiaasen writes, "After sixteen years and nine months at the Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, Chemo had walked out of maximum security and straight into a job selling home loans in Orlando. Because it was the peak of the real-estate boom and flimsy credit was abundant, the state of Florida bigheartedly overlooked all regulatory restrictions and welcomed with open arms anyone — including thousands of convicted felons — to the mortgage-peddling racket."

But with the boom gone bust, Chemo needs work, and Cherry's handlers need a bodyguard so forbidding she won't try to have sex with him. Chemo, a towering 6 feet 9, has a horribly disfigured face thanks to a botched electrolysis procedure, a salmon-pink toupee and, as a prosthesis for his missing hand, a weed wacker, tastefully jacketed with a golf club cover but always at the ready. Even Cherry won't hit that.

Skink and Chemo collide when Abbott cooks up a scheme to kidnap and photograph Cherry, only to grab Ann instead. Skink wrenches himself away from his beloved crocodiles to search for Ann in South Beach, while Chemo is trying to find her, too — now that Abbott knows about the double, the Cherry Pye money train is at risk.

Hiaasen has a blast satirizing the extremes of our celebrity culture and the parasites that infest it; Cherry is such a whiny brat you almost wish she'd just overdose already, except that the people around her (except Ann and, oddly enough, Chemo) are worse than she is.

Certainly there's plenty to deplore about that culture, including the fact that the rich and famous have ruined South Beach, and other select swaths of Florida as well. But I couldn't help thinking there are worse threats and better targets, and wishing Skink and Chemo were taking on, say, some carpetbagging politicians and oil company executives. Maybe next time.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

Meet the author

Inkwood Books will present Carl Hiaasen at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Florida Aquarium, 701 Channelside Drive, Tampa. Tickets are free but are available only with the purchase of a copy of Star Island from Inkwood. (813) 253-2638; www.inkwoodbooks.com.

Review: In 'Star Island,' Carl Hiaasen points satiric laser at culture of celebrity excess 08/28/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 25, 2010 1:53am]

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