By Lee Lipps

Carl Hiaasen has a long list of successfully skewered societal institutions and societal piranhas: developers, beauty pageants, politicians, lotteries, plastic surgeons, bass fishing tournaments, and those who take advantage of others’ misfortunes, just to name a few.

With his latest novel, Basket Case, you can officially add newspaper publishing and the rock music industry to the others that Hiaasen has pinned to the butterfly mat and examined.

Jack Tagger, former ace investigative reporter for the Union-Register, has been permanently relegated to the netherworld of his profession-writing obituaries-by Race Maggad III, the supercilious young Chairman and CEO of Maggad-Feist Publishing Group, owners of twenty-seven daily newspapers around the country.

This is due to Tagger’s having had the temerity to publicly humiliate young Maggad III in front of 500 shareholders by loudly asserting that the penurious new owners of the paper are more interested in profitability than in journalistic integrity and the public interest. He further asserts, in front of the nervous investors, that this will lead to the eventual collapse of the reader base of the heretofore esteemed newspaper and, ultimately, to bankruptcy.

In the course of his duties Jack comes across the bland death notice of one James Bradley Stomarti, 39. Tagger, being obsessed with the ages at which people die relative to his own forty-six years, is more amazed at what is omitted in the death notice than at what is expressed. He discovers that the deceased is better known as Jimmy Stoma, lead singer of the disbanded cult rock group Jimmy and the Slut Puppies, whose first hit single, “Mouth Full of Muscle,” was followed by such hit albums as Floating Hospice and the Grammy-Award winning A Painful Burning Sensation. Since Jack is one of their biggest fans, he reasons that the public is entitled to a feature obituary on the death of a person of such eminence rather than simply a family-paid death notice.

He prevails upon his managing editor, also a Slut Puppies fan, to let him interview Stoma’s budding rock star widow, Cleo Rio, for pithy quotes and details for the obit. Subsequent inconsistencies in what the vixenish and duplicitous Cleo tells other reporters from what she tells Tagger about her husband’s accidental death lead him to reprise his forbidden persona of ace investigative reporter in an effort to regain his byline status and good standing among his peers.

In the meantime MacArthur Polk, immediate past owner of the Union-Register, demands that Tagger be assigned to pre-write Polk’s obituary since he is near death. Polk wants certain facts and quotes included in the obit upon his passing and demands an interview with Tagger. Polk has been dying, allegedly, for seventeen years and Jack is only the latest in a series of reporters assigned to pre-write Polk’s obituary.

However, Polk has a method to his madness and makes Tagger complicit in a scheme to restore journalistic integrity and professionalism to the Union-Register upon Polk’s eventual demise.

All investigations and schemes are proceeding nicely until Jack’s new love interest and immediate boss (same person) is kidnapped and Jack has an unwinnable Hobson’s choice. Altogether a satisfying, if not predictable, ending.

One of the most difficult challenges an author has, it seems to me, is to sustain his/her brilliance and originality over a career without getting repetitive or tiresome. Some, like Thomas Perry, Stephen Hunter, Don Winslow, James W. Hall, Nelson DeMille, and Dennis Lehane change venues, established characters, theme or tone to remain fresh and give freedom for personal growth.

Others, like Ludlum, Parker, Cussler, and Grisham maintain inexorable characters or themes and, though readable with occasional flashes of originality (well, except for Grisham these recent years), become nearly mundane. But I continue to buy and read them. Retail.

But a rare few can issue novel after novel in the same style and character type and consistently remain vibrant and fresh. Hiaasen resides in those heavens. Other residents include Elmore Leonard, Dan Jenkins, Edna Buchanan, and Michael Connelly.

In Basket Case Hiaasen settles down more into satire than parody, but the parodic (ok, so I made up a word!) moments are most welcome and, at times, their frequency is almost longed for. We have mere villains, not outsized monsters. We have realistic dialogue, not snappy one-liners. We have plausible parallel plots, not wildly divergent, unrelated sub-plots culminating in implausible endings. Nevertheless, Hiaasen’s comedic genius shines brightly throughout the novel.

Except for the somewhat stock resolution to Tagger’s difficult choice, this is a near perfect novel. I would rate it Hiaasen’s 3rd best behind Tourist Season and Stormy Weather. Maybe Double Whammy.

There were two added bonuses in this book. First, I’m a big Warren Zevon fan and his influence is notable in this novel. Second, unfortunately but not unexpectedly, a dear friend and colleague passed away recently. His importance was so great to the development of the social history of Los Angeles that I was puzzled at the absence of a feature obituary in the Los Angeles Times. I called the Times to inquire as to the oversight. My odyssey through that department transcended Hiaasen’s satirical arrow.

Lee Lipps
Just an average guy who likes to read
Pismo Beach, CA
21 Jan 02