By Carl Hiaasen
Basket Case is a bit of a departure for Carl Hiaasen. Of course it’s another violent comedy of vice and corruption set in South Florida – Hiaasen isn’t about to quit a successful formula now – but this time it’s personal.
For starters, the story is told in the first person, which isn’t usual for Hiaasen. The narrator is Jack Tagger, a reporter for a South Florida daily (like Hiaasen) who has recently been demoted to the obituary column. All of Hiaasen’s heroes are anti-establishment, anti-corporate crusaders, and Tagger’s banishment from front page by-lines to death row content provider has come as a result of his gross insubordination at a shareholders’ meeting of the giant media conglomerate that has taken over the Union-Register.
But the conflict between Jack and Race Maggad III, the paper’s arrogant new CEO, is only part of the novel’s plot. The main story is a detective thriller (that is, something more obvious and more physical than a mystery). It begins with Tagger, now obsessed with measuring his lifespan against those of dead celebrities, investigating the suspicious death of a former rock star. What follows is what we have come to expect from Hiaasen. The supporting cast of local freaks and oddballs are a treat and the satire is fast and furious. As always, it’s pretty clear who the villains are (you can usually tell from their names), and justice strikes in the end with ferocious symmetry.
These qualities have gained Hiaasen something of a cult following, which Basket Case, though one of his weaker efforts, will probably do little to change. For what it’s worth, Hiaasen is only capable of creating two kinds of characters – dangerous and lovable nuts – and when he tries to change gears and get real with relationships and emotions he falls into cliché. As far as the plot is concerned, the rock star story isn’t at all convincing and the bad guys aren’t as weird or interesting as the author usually makes them. Hiaasen’s outrage, which we last saw directed at greedy real estate developers in Sick Puppy, never ignites in his satire of the recording industry (which is probably impervious to satire anyway).
Basket Case has its moments, but perhaps it stays too close to home. Newspapers and hard rock are both subjects Hiaasen obviously has a sentimental attachment to, but his perverse sense of humour is more effective the nearer he lets it get to the edge.
Review first published March 2, 2002.