Up Where We Belong

Oh, Florida.

I am connected to Florida, and despite all the negative reactions just saying Florida can often trigger simply by saying the word, I have a genuine fondness for the pork chop shaped state. My grandparents retired there, to the Panhandle, when I was a kid; an aunt owned a summer house a few blocks from the Gulf in Panama City Beach. I spent a lot of time there during the summers when I was young (part of the annual jaunt to Alabama); and I wound up living there in the early 90’s when I worked for Continental Airlines. I visited Miami and South Beach frequently; I have many friends who live (or have residences) in Fort Lauderdale. I’d intended to set my novel Timothy there originally–the house was going to be on one of the islands across the Intercontinental Waterway from Miami. (I did have my couple meet and fall in love on South Beach, although the story moved them back to the beautiful house on Long Island, near the Hamptons.) I’ve always wanted to write about Florida, and I’ve always loved reading about Florida. There’s something noir and gritty and hardboiled about Florida, yet at the same time there’s this zany wackiness to Florida (so people will post link to bizarre news stories about things that happen there on social media and say “Oh, Florida.”)

There are so many wonderful books about Florida; so many amazing writers have set their novels there–from Robert Wilder’s Flamingo Road to John D. MacDonald’s noirs and Travis McGee novels to Elaine Viets’ badass Helen Hawthorne series to Edna Buchanan to the sublime Vicky Hendricks (you MUST read Miami Purity, Constant Reader) to Randy Wayne White’s Doc Ford series–the list could go on and on and on. Everything works in Florida; whether it’s hard-boiled crime or hilariously funny crime or noir.

There’s actually a Florida noir in my mind right now, that I am hoping to get to at some point this year (if I don’t run out of time; if I do, it’ll be next year.)

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On the fifteenth of March, two hours before sunrise, an emergency medical technician named Jimmy Campo found a sweaty stranger huddled in the back of his ambulance. It was parked in a service alley behind the Stefano Hotel, where Jimmy Campo and his partner had been 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, until now.

The stranger in Jimmy Campo’s ambulance had two35-mm digital cameras hanging from his fleshy neck, and a bulky gear bag balanced on his ample lap. He wore a Dodgers cap and a Bluetooth ear set. His ripe, florid cheeks glistened damply and his body reeked like a prison laundry bag.

“Get out of my ambulance,” Jimmy Campo said.

“Is she dead?” the man asked excitedly.

And so begins my latest Carl Hiaasen read, Star Island. 

I chose to read another Hiaasen rather something heavier and darker because, quite frankly, this entire past week had been so crazy on every level–what with what was going on in the country in general, madness at home, madness at the office–that I wanted something that would help me escape from it all, and Hiaasen always delivers. His books, which seem so zany and wild and yes, fluffy, on the surface are actually much more; there are layers and depth there that may not be readily apparent. Star Island not only has the trademark Hiaasen wacky wit, but it’s also a very subtle critique of our current celebrity culture,  and how an entire media has built up around ‘entertainment news.’

Star Island focuses on the misadventures of a young pop star who rose to fame by selling sex in her videos at age fourteen: Cherry Pye, and her team of handlers who really see her as a cash cow and not as a human being. Cherry is beautiful and sexy, but not much talent–relying on autotune and back up vocalists being dubbed in and over her own off-tune warblings. Cherry is the worst kind of diva: spoiled, selfish, narcissistic, and used to having her team–which includes her awful parents–clean up her messes so she never has, and is wholly incapable of, taking any responsibility. Because she is so frequently in and out of rehab, her team has had to hire a look-alike, Annie DeLusian, an actress, play her in public to cover up overdoses, etc. The book opens with Cherry on the verge of another comeback with a new album, Skantily Klad, and also overdosing on the combination of things in the excerpt above while partying with a young three-named actor. Annie fills in for her to fool the paparazzi while the team slips the girl out the back–and the story is off to the races. Will her team be able to keep Cherry sober and out of trouble long enough for the investment in her new album put her back on top again? Will the paparazzo completely obsessed with her get the shots he needs to get himself out of the hole? And what about Annie, the only decent person in this whole mess? Tired of playing Cherry and dealing with her horrible team, will she be able to find her way out of this and maybe get some gigs that actually use her talent?

Star Island also brings back two Hiaasen characters from past books: Skink, the ex-governor of Florida who now lives in the wilderness and wreaks havoc on corrupt developers and others who work to destroy the complex Florida ecosystem; and Chemo, the criminal sociopath who lost a hand to a barracuda and had it replaced with a weed whacker. (Yes, it sounds crazy. The first Hiaasen I read, over twenty years ago, was Chemo’s first adventure, and was so silly and over-the-top that I refused to read another Hiaasen until I picked up Bad Monkey off a sale table at a Barnes and Noble in DC a few years ago; now I get what Hiaasen is doing with his work and enjoy it.)

Star Island made me laugh out loud several times, and somehow, with all of its twists and turns, everything was wrapped up at the end in a very satisfying package. Hiaasen novels are intricately and complexly plotted, which I admire–plot is always an issue for me, and I am always afraid I am leaving threads hanging when I finish writing a novel.

The book was exactly what I needed to read this weekend.

 

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