Hiaasen revels in telling it like it is

Published: Sunday, January 5, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 4, 2003 at 10:43 p.m.
Quentin Crisp, a British author born in 1908, said that if you describe things as better than they are, you'll be called a romantic. If you describe things as worse than they are, you'll be considered a realist. And if you describe things exactly as they are, you're a satirist, and there's no helping you.
If Crisp is right, there's just no help for fellow Floridian Carl Hiaasen. Simply, he has one of the most delightful satirical writing voices to come along in decades.
We don't have to turn more than six pages of "Basket Case" before we are swept into the charm of Hiassen's cheddar cheese-sharp descriptions - such as this one about his boss: "Emma is young and owns a grinding ambition to ascend the newspaper's management ladder. She hopes for an office with a window, a position of genuine authority and stock options. Poor kid. I've tried to steer her to a profession more geared toward her talents - retail footwear, for example."
This is the stuff that has turned at least a half dozen of Hiaasen's novels into best sellers. And I have to admit, Jack Tagger - the narrator who is the basket case in "Basket Case" - charmed me right into his sad plight on the first page. He's terrified that he will die any minute while writing obituaries for the newspapers he writes for (as though dying is contagious).
Tagger was 40 years old when he went to work for the newspaper that has demoted him (because of a change in ownership) from being a hotshot front-page reporter to an obit writer. He is now 46. "Elvis died at forty-six. So did President Kennedy. George Orwell . . . If death could snatch such heavy hitters, a nobody like me is easy pickings."
In every story there are two parts in terms of creating narrative drive: l) something the main character needs emotionally, and 2) the physical actions that come from that emotional need. I call this creating the emotional engine to drive the story. And in "Basket Case" this engine is Tagger's obsession that he is destined to die young. (Or relatively young. Making it 46 years is nothing to sneeze at.) But what this fear also imparts is that he is man who is unsatisfied with who he is. He has so many loose ends dangling in his life, he's like an octopus on a muscle relaxant.
Note how Hiaasen opens the book with Tagger speaking in the present tense, creating a sense of intimacy and urgency. The present tense also imparts a feeling that whatever happens to Jack will be happening to us, the readers, at the same time; and together we'll be making sense of them.
At one place in my notes, I wrote down, "Hiaasen sees the world as funny; things come together in the most unexpected ways, like the stripper who's dynamite on stage but 'in real life had a terrible overbite.' He sees the world as ridiculous and revels in the mad-cap proof that verifies his vision."
Also, don't miss the delights of "Hoot." If you have a young adult in your household, read along to see how Hiaasen uses his craft bag of storytelling techniques for a younger audience.
Looking ahead And here's what's on tap for the whole new year:
  • March: "Romeo and Juliet," by William Shakespeare.
  • April, May: "Manchild in the Promised Land," by Claude Brown. Along with the young adult novel, "The Graduation of Jake Moon," by Barbara Park - a novel recommended by Cedar Key Middle Schoolers.
    n June: "In Cold Blood," by Truman Capote - recommended by Matt Coleman from Gainesville, who says, "This is a must read for anyone who wants to gain a better understanding about the wave of notorious violence that has besieged our culture in the past decade and recently in the Washington area."
  • July, August: "The Magnificent Ambersons," by Booth Tarkington - recommended by Odetta MacLeish-White, of Gainesville, who says, "This would make a good novel for us to discuss with the comprehensive plan mediation currently underway and the heated debates over the environment and the economic status of residents.
  • For young adult summer reading, our list includes: "The Art of Keeping Cool," by Janet Lisle; "Gracie's Girl," by Ellen Wittlinger; and "Double Fudge," by Judy Blume.
  • We'll finish up the year with "Peace Like a River" - recommended by Linda Porter, a librarian in Ocala - and then ending with two important novels by our beloved Florida writer, Patrick Smith - "Forever Island" and "Allapattah."
    Make it your new year's resolution to read along with us. Join our novel conversation.
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