'Basket Case' is wisecracking good fun

Published: Sunday, January 12, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 11, 2003 at 9:47 p.m.
Picture this: Standing on the monorail in the Atlanta Airport sharing a hanging-onto-pole with a man tall enough to do slam-dunks, I look up and see him looking down at my copy of "Basket Case."
"I haven't read it yet," he says. "How is it?"
"Tart. Quick. Wisecracking," I say, "and a heck of a lot of fun."
"You know," he adds, "whenever I read Hiaasen, I feel vindicated."
I knew what he meant. And we left it at that. Besides, the monorail had stopped, and a sea of people was getting on, so we were busy doing a dry-land butterfly stroke to get off.
Yes, Hiaasen's vision in looking at the world is often the same one with which a lot of us look out at our world. The short version might be: we are on a planet going somewhere, but the name of the destination was not on our ticket. In fact, we can't find our ticket. And every once in a while the gears get jammed and the ride gets wacky.
Making heads and tails of what all's around us is enough to keep us occupied. And no one expresses this state of bewilderment and irritation better than the narrator of "Basket Case" - Jack Tagger.
Janet, the sister of the man Jack Tagger suspects has been murdered, asks Jack, "Don't tell me you believe in fate?"
"Not fate," Jack answers, "Black irony. That's what I believe in."
Jack is convinced that his life is going to circle back to bite him - specifically striking him dead at the exact age that his father died - and Jack feels that if he can just find out the date of his father's death, he can somehow avoid dying at the same age. Having a monthly physical is a start, and worrying the pea-doodle-squat out of everyone around him is a good runner-up.
I can't remember when I've ever read a book in which the author thought so much about the reader. As I turn the pages, I feel Hiaasen working on me like a magician swirling multi-colored scarves through the air. He is always posing questions and keeping me turning the pages to search along with Jack for the answers.
Do you see Hiaasen raising these questions early on: How did Jack's father die? What will happen between Jack and Emma, his boss with the polished toenails? What does it mean when the computer harddrive stuff is found? When the character Janet disappears, has she been kidnapped and maybe killed? It sure looks that way. In fact, Hiaasen works to make it look that way. And as soon as he answers one question, he raises another.
A new book club in Gainesville has offered to be a focus group for our discussion here. As yet, they do not have a name for their club, so for the purpose of our discussion, I think I'll call them Tagger's Girls. After all, the character of Jack Tagger would most likely say, "Bring 'em on."
Before the holidays I met with Tagger's Girls. This is a group of six women who have known each other from being in various other groups and wanted to read works that would draw out conversations about relationships, religious issues and history. The list of books they are reading is indeed impressive - a heavy dose of classics along with Pulitzer prize winners.
Since they confessed that they enjoy eating almost as much as reading, they met in restaurants for a while, but found that too noisy. So now they meet once a month in each other's homes. They decided to keep the group small to encourage candid discussions.
None of these book club members had ever read a Hiaasen novel, so the experience was all new to them. Kathleen Swallows says, "Gosh! I loved the thugs. Especially that one with the ponytail and loud cologne. The writing felt so light and funny from the beginning, I knew it would be fun."
On the other hand, there's a straight-faced message underneath "Basket Case." On his Web site, Hiaasen says, "I consider myself a deeply concerned member of the human race. I would like my children and grandchildren to be able to grow up in a place where they can always see a bald eagle or a manatee or a school of dolphins - or a pair of burrowing owls, for that matter."
And those owls are the center of his new young adult novel, "Hoot."
This week, slip off with Jack Tagger. And ask a young adult to be your novel buddy and show them that we give a hoot about reading.
Join our novel conversation.

Join the club

  • Throughout January and February we'll be reading and discussing "Basket Case" by Carl Hiaasen. Young adult readers will join us with Hiaasen's new novel, "Hoot." We're also adding on the non-fiction book, "Fast Food Nation" by Eric Schlosser. Send your comments to Shelleyfm@
    aol.com. or Box 1408, Alachua, FL 32616. If your business, book club or neighborhood would like to be featured here as a focus group, send along that info, too.
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