By Louis Bayard
Tuesday, July 27, 2010; C02
By Carl Hiaasen
Knopf. 337 pp. $26.95
There is precious little innocence in Carl Hiaasen's moral universe, only gradients of venality. Spend enough time with all those stoners and smugglers and ex-cons and sugar cane tycoons and telemarketers and televangelists, and you'll swear they must have crawled straight from the Florida swamps, hissing, wreathed in poisonwood. Which is another way of saying that Hiaasen needs his southern Florida the way Dickens needed his fog.
Should we be alarmed, then, that the chief troublemaker in "Star Island" hails not from Dade County but from the Hollywood Hills? Her name is Cherry Pye, nee Cheryl Bunterman, and she's a pop singer of the "barely legal slut" school, employed by Jailbait Records. She sells millions of singles with titles like "Runaway Tongue" and "Jealous Bone," and so what if she has a voice like "a sackful of starving kittens"? That's what backup singers and celebrity machinery are for, and, as a result, Cherry Pye is a bona fide star and very much an island: vacuous, egoistic and shrill, and given to pensées like "After I die, see, I really wanted to come back as a whale? But now I don't, 'cause who wants to get, like, stabbed with a harpoon?"
It's okay, Cherry doesn't have to be smart. She has a retinue of handlers and bottom-feeders -- her parents notable among them -- who do all her thinking for her. The one thing they can't do is keep Cherry from partying and, in short order, overdosing. Their only recourse is to trundle her off to the next ER or rehab center and hope nobody notices. And to make sure nobody does, they hire an "undercover stunt double," a young actress named Ann DeLusia who impersonates Cherry at clubs and premieres and even the passing funeral -- wherever fans expect Cherry to be.
The subterfuge is ticking along just fine until a sweaty paparazzo named Bang Abbott kidnaps Ann under the impression she's Cherry. Bang's agenda is simple. He wants a day alone with his beloved star so he can create the photographs that will compose her memorial. (Quite reasonably, he assumes she'll be dead before the year is out. Remember all those advance obits being generated for Lindsay Lohan?) Unfortunately for him, Cherry's latest bodyguard is a giraffe-size killer named Chemo with a finely honed instinct for self-preservation and a weed whacker where his hand used to be. And Ann herself has a defender in glass-eyed Clinton Tyree, formerly governor and now a vigilante-style nemesis to the developers who are turning Florida's wilderness into cinder blocks and asphalt.
Alert fans will recognize Clinton and Chemo as holdovers from earlier Hiaasen larks, but will be comforted nonetheless by the new grotesques crowding into the grotto: Botoxed twin publicists; a strung-out drummer from a band called the Poon Pilots; a young actor playing "a corpse-diddling longboarder with the soul of a poet" in Tarantino's latest film; and, just in passing, Cherry's youngest brother, who has "a gallery in La Jolla dedicated to homoerotic sculpture and watercolors on butcher paper, painted with the tail of his deaf Persian cat."
How would such disparate people ever intersect in the real world? Why would someone as smart and resourceful as Ann allow herself to be kidnapped by a clod like Bang Abbott? Why is Clinton Tyree even there? (His effect on the main story is minimal.) Longtime readers know better than to dwell on such questions: Hiaasen is a master not of plot but of situation.
Consider three moments. Cherry's mom, upon hearing that a scallop tastes "like a broiled tumor," suggests trying it with ponzu sauce. Tyree's glass eye pops out of its socket and rolls down the aisle of a bus; Ann, without a word, retrieves it from under a wet bar. A hired assassin rats out his employer for failing to upgrade him from coach to first class. In each case, the effect is strangely serene because each character is simply following the dictates of his inner logic -- and is all the more surprised when some other system of logic gets in the way. A sentence like "The whole experience had soured him on contract killings" is, in the Hiaasen scheme of things, perfectly coherent and all the funnier for it.
What keeps "Star Island" from ascending to the author's upper echelon is the op-ed staleness that clings to its satire. Wandering outside his tropic comfort zone, Hiaasen hasn't come up with any insights more lancing than this: Show business is phony. Which, in addition to being old news, is seriously beside the point. Under the prevailing cultural ethos, phoniness is the new integrity. Kathy Griffin makes lunge after lunge at the A-list (long after she's arrived there). Heidi Montag pouts when doctors deny her more plastic surgeries. Lady Gaga sounds like Madonna, and Madonna sounds like the Duchess of Bedford. Writing a comedy about showbiz has become worse than easy, it's become redundant. Never mind what Edmund Kean said on his deathbed: It's tragedy now that's hard.
Bayard is a novelist and reviewer in Washington.