The key line in Carl Hiaasen's latest exercise in wackiness, Star Island, is uttered by a state trooper investigating a hijacked busload of development investors. He's found one of them tied to a poisonwood tree with a sea urchin crammed into his underpants. As the trooper puts it, "I bet this never happens in Missouri."
Indeed. The events that occur in Hiaasen's novels could never credibly be imagined to occur anywhere other than Florida. His combined fictional output, in fact, goes a pretty long way toward justifying the existence of Florida: if nothing else, the state is entertaining. But Hiaasen is also a journalist, and even his most outlandish plots have an edge of social critique.
Star Island might not even be one of his most outlandish plots. (There's a fair amount of competition.) It pretends to be about an off-the-rails young starlet named Cheryl Bunterman, aka Cherry Pye, a pop singer without voice or musical talent. Really, though, the heart of the book is Cherry Pye's body double, Ann DeLusia, an aspiring actress whose steady job is to show up at key places and seem to be Cherry Pye when the real Cherry Pye is in rehab or on her way there.
No one aside from Cherry's parents, agent, and bodyguard knows about Ann. So when a sleazy paparrazzo becomes obsessed with Cherry and decides to kidnap her one night . . . well, you can probably guess what happens, but there's no way to predict what happens after that. Or before it, actually. Hiaasen cuts loose and goes wild with the story, but he never loses control of the many characters; the reader is often amazed but never confused.
If there's one quibble, it's that the bad guys are a little cartoonish—the aforementioned developer of the urchin in the pants, for example, is irredeemable to the point of cliche; the agent is strictly slimeball; Cherry's mother is a stock stage mom, only worse; and Cherry herself is dim and boring. The two main semi-villains—the sleazy photographer and Cherry's bodyguard, who has a weed-whacker for an arm—are deeply and fascinatingly weird, but the former is believable while the latter is just slightly too strange to believe.
But the good guys are so well conceived that this hardly matters. Ann is cool and smart, with loads of moxie, and it's no wonder even the bad guys end up liking her. Then there's Skink, deranged prankster and former governor, who becomes Ann's champion after first kidnapping her at gunpoint. Through the two of them, Hiaasen shames the greedy and the shallow and demonstrates that it's possible to preserve one's integrity even in a freakishly hostile environment. Missouri should be so lucky.
Becky Ohlsen is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon.