Carl Hiaasen Skewers South Beach in Star Island
by brett sokol
For nearly a quarter-century, author Carl Hiaasen has left South Beach relatively unscathed. Over 11 viciously satirical novels, beginning with 1986’s Tourist Season, Hiaasen has laid into South Florida’s singularly colorful cast of corrupt politicos, ravenous real estate developers and, yes, clueless tourists.
Indeed, given the often surreal nature of crime in the Sunshine State—witness this past year’s exposé of a spate of onetime drug dealers turning to mortgage brokering as a more lucrative scam—it can often be hard to tell precisely where Hiaasen’s fiction begins and his weekly op-ed columns for The Miami Herald end. Yet strangely, amid all his furious typing, South Beach’s* own array of no-less-memorable characters—its hustlers-turned-hoteliers, its stick-up-kids-turned-nightclub-impresarios, and the jet-setting glitterati they all cater to—has drawn little more from Hiaasen than glancing blows.
No more. For his latest novel, Star Island, Hiaasen sets his sights firmly on the American Riviera in all its velvet-roped notoriety. “One of the points of Star Island—and this is a stunning revelation—is that some people in show business are stupid,” Hiaasen recently told a packed roomful of fans inside a Manhattan bookstore. Hiaasen pressed on, deadpan, over the crowd’s laughter. “It’s not a cliché, it happens to be a fact. If you’ve done enough reporting and interviews over the years, you find yourself sitting across the table from someone semifamous whom you are expecting to say one thing, or contribute in some way to the conversation.” He shook his head. “And yet the realization washes over you: There is literally less to this person than meets the eye! It’s not their fault. It’s a benign emptiness. We’ve invested them with some kind of importance.”
For Star Island, Hiaasen’s empty vessel du jour is Cherry Pye, a barely veiled take on Lindsay Lohan, complete with a clueless stage mother wringing her hands over her daughter’s repeated “gastritis scares” as jaded paramedics revive her from yet another drug overdose. Cherry’s record producer is a bit more honest, conceding she possessed “the weakest singing voice he’d ever heard from anyone not confined to a hospice.”
Ensconced inside a suite at the Delano hotel (or, as Hiaasen dubs it, the Stefano), Cherry’s extensive crew of well-paid handlers, managers and publicists labors over her latest comeback. Circling hungrily is photographer Bang Abbott, once an esteemed newspaperman, now on the hunt for the tabloids, who finally resorts to kidnapping his prey in a desperate bid for a career-making snapshot.
There’s plenty of juicy (as well as on-point) local flavor. And the Beach hot spots that Hiaasen invents—Club Abscess and Club Pubes—only sound preposterously juvenile until one recalls that millions of dollars were poured into the even more ridiculously named G-Spot, an all too real nightclub that came and (thankfully) went on Washington Avenue some years ago.
But Hiaasen isn’t playing this material strictly for laughs. “I’m in the news business, and I’ve been steadily more and more appalled at how little news gets in the newspaper and on television,” he says. “In its place is information about people who honestly don’t deserve much of our attention.”
PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG CLARK