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BOOK REVIEW

Celebrity culture gets skewered in ‘Star Island’

By Carlo Wolff
July 29, 2010

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Carl Hiaasen reclaims his groove in “Star Island,’’ a wicked, fizzy sendup of American celebrity culture. More than three years after issuing the lazy “Nature Girl,’’ Hiaasen returns in fine form, far more consistently on the money than Bang Abbott, the unlikely driver of this very funny book about life in the fast lane.

Abbott is a “pudge muffin’’ paparazzo dogging Cherry Pye (nee Cheryl Gail Bunterman), an airhead rock diva prone to polydrug abuse. Pushed by her clueless and cynical parents, Janet and Ned, and managed by the Machiavellian Maury Lykes, Cherry is such a wreck that a double stands at the ready for her when she’s too stoned to function. Unlike Cherry, however, the double, Ann DeLusia, has her head screwed on.

When Abbott, pathologically driven to cash in on celebrity “money shots,’’ kidnaps Ann instead of Cherry, the plot kicks into gear. It’s a wild one featuring symbiotic heroines (Ann fits the tag far more than Cherry), a former hit man turned bodyguard named Chemo, that familiar deranged Hiaasen character Skink, and brilliantly named minor players such as Cherry’s sometime fling Tanner Dane Keefe, the rapacious and fraudulent developer Jackie Sebago, and Methane Drudge, drummer for the Poon Pilots. The aura over all and likely the novel’s inspiration is reminiscent of Michael Jackson, whose death prompted the sale of CDs in a volume the Gloved One hadn’t seen since the early part of his career.

Cherry appears to be a conflation of Britney Spears, Amy Winehouse, and Lindsay Lohan. Lykes seems modeled on Lou Pearlman, the former manager of ’N Sync and Backstreet Boys now doing time on a Ponzi scheme conviction. Skink, who also figured in such Hiaasen novels as “Skinny Dip’’ and “Native Tongue,’’ is the nickname of fictional former Florida governor Clinton Tyree, who abruptly quit the job to become an environmental guerrilla warrior. These characters are so rich that it’s easy to overlook the details that make this book especially juicy.

Take Abbott, who nabbed a Pulitzer Prize for spot news while working for the St. Petersburg Times. His winning image: a snap of a Canadian tourist attacked by a lemon shark. Trouble is, the photo was “doctored’’ by Abbott, who wasn’t smart enough to cover his tracks. Other characters are similarly shady, like the developer Sebago, who suffers a creative and grievous injury to his private parts, and Fremont Spores, a seedy police scanner addict who tips Abbott to the whereabouts of compromised celebrities.

Hiaasen’s take on pop tartlet Cherry is cutting. Her first single was “Touch Me Like You Mean It,’’ and the debut track off her imminent CD, “Skantily Klad,’’ is “Jealous Bone.’’ Not likable, she’s an easy target for Hiaasen’s disdain, but she has enough dimension to make her more than a cartoon. Barely enough. Here, Cherry preps for her tour:

“Laurel was the new lip-synching coach. She had downloaded Cherry’s set list onto an MP3, which she plugged into a player dock in the sitting area of the suite. As a rehearsal aid she’d even brought a headset of the type Cherry would be wearing as a prop onstage.

“ ‘I already know, like, every song by heart,’ Cherry insisted, although soon it became clear that she didn’t.

“Chemo almost felt sorry for Laurel. The lyrics were brainless and repetitive yet Cherry kept getting lost, even on the refrains. Chemo made her chug a Red Bull, with no improvement. Eventually he had to leave the room. It was the most monotonous crap he’d ever heard, and he had once worked the door at a white rap club.’’

Among Hiaasen’s abilities is painting big pictures with small strokes. For example, all you need to know of Chemo’s back story is his full name: Blondell Wayne Tatum. As for the plot, it’s tricky, and the ending in the Miami nightclub Pubes is more like a disappearing act that doesn’t quite tie up loose ends; Hiaasen finesses this with an epilogue. As befits this installment in Hiaasen’s entertaining, long-running series about Florida’s underbelly, the artful, witty coda suggests there’s far more material on which to draw.

Carlo Wolff, a freelance writer from Cleveland, can be reached at carlo.wolff@gmail.com.

STAR ISLAND

By Carl Hiaasen

Knopf, 352 pp., $26.95