Perhaps the biggest failing was the decision to make the novel first person, narrated in the present tense by the main character, Jack Tagger. Now, one of the things that made Hiaasen works so great in the past (and in the present) is the use of subplots that sometimes seemed to have nothing to do with the main story but which tie with hilarious results into the conclusion of the novel. My favorite example would have to be the finale of Strip Tease, in which everything comes together beautifully, including a subplot about a wealthy sugar heir and his family's farm. Unfortunately, by making the choice to make Tagger the narrator Hiaasen limits himself in a way he rarely does in his other books. There can be no subplot to which Tagger is not witness.
And another thing about Tagger... perhaps I have no right to say that he is an author-surrogate character, but what else can one call a middle-aged journalist suddenly dropped to the obituary beat because of his heroism in talking back to the big bad establishment, only to inexplicably gain the admiration of his paper's former owner, who offers him a hundred grand a year to take over some stock and mess with said establishment's head, gets the girl (who is young enough to be his daughter—twenty years younger), wins fame and admiration, is taken back off the obit beat, saves his paper, sends the villainess to jail, and is generally an all-around cool guy? But maybe Hiaasen's surrogate was Joe Wilder from Native Tongue, while Tagger is just some guy. I don't know Hiaasen, I couldn't say. But Hiaasen seems to find Tagger a great deal more fascinating than I ever did. I just couldn't root for the man. He was boring and self-righteous and snobbish and preachy, and coming from an author whose every work screams conservation of the Everglades while still being hilarious, that says a lot.
There's a bit toward the end where Tagger monologues about the fall of the daily newspaper. It goes something like this: “The Race Maggads of the industry have a standard gospel to rationalize their pillaging. It goes like this: American newspapers are steadily losing both readers and advertisers.... This fatal slide can be reversed only with a radical recasting of our role in the community. We need to be more receptive and responsive, less cynical and confrontational... We're all in this together!” Hiaasen is kind enough to end with “Yet even as we do more with less, we must never forget our solemn pledge to our readers, blah, blah, blah...” (309-310) so that we are aware it's not to be taken seriously. But its unfunny ranting and so is Tagger's subsequent complaining about “polo-playing CEOs.”
He also comes across as a trope hiding naked under the guise of a music buff. He is the Obsessed Reporter, who will do anything for a story and damn the consequences, the levies, relationships, entertainment, and your eyes. He finds blood on the floor of a wrecked home movie set and suspects murder but refuses to come forward and force the police to investigate because then he would be involved and wouldn't be able to write the article. The fact that he is an obituary writer does not deter him; he becomes obsessed with the ages at which celebrities died and constantly agonizes that he won't outlive Elvis. This, incidentally, is another instance of Hiaasen finding a character trait more interesting than it is. All right, it's amusing at first when Tagger informs someone he doesn't like that they have outlived Joplin and Cobain. But he does it again and again and again. Worse, when Tagger finds out his girlfriend/daughter-surrogate has been kidnapped, he still refuses to go to the police on account of the kidnappers are “too stupid.” I don't buy it, book.
The reasons given for Tagger not going to the police throughout book strike me as the carelessly tacked-on reasons of an author who doesn't care anymore, the kind of reasons Patricia Cornwell wouldn't have been caught dead using until a couple years ago. And to top it all off, he's a music snob. Everything turns into a Rolling Stones reference, and he judges people based on their taste in music. At one point he wants to like the man who ends up kidnapping his girl because he taps his boot to a song Tagger likes. Well, why not? I've liked people for less.
There were a lot of things about this book I didn't buy. The girlfriend was one of them. I never really believed her character arc from Tagger's angry, slightly incompetent editor into his feisty love interest (who still winds up getting kidnapped, by the way). Here's something to chew on, entertainment industry: just because two people don't get along they don't necessarily have sexual chemistry. Sometimes they just don't like each other.
But the biggest disappointment by far is the fact that it just wasn't funny in the way I've come to expect from a Carl Hiaasen novel. It wouldn't be fair to say it wasn't funny at all—I enjoyed the tale of Colonel Tom the monitor lizard and his activities after death as a bludgeoning item during a home invasion—but occasionally I got the feeling I'd stumbled into the wrong novel by mistake. The only Hiaasen-esque touch I could find was a man being scalped by his waist-length ponytail when it catches in an airboat fan. Okay, I admit that was pretty funny. But the rest of the finale was like a Mary Higgins Clark thriller, and the twist at the end, when a body previously believed to be cremated is revealed to be in the ground under a different name, feels more like a soap opera plot device. The fact that there is not retribution to the character responsible irks me.
When I first started this book, I thought maybe it was one of Hiaasen's first, that he hadn't come into his own yet while writing it. But when I checked the copyright date, it was 2002, nearly ten years after my favorite of his works, Strip Tease, came out. While I'm not averse to a bit of experimenting in writing, I'm still pleased to say that he returned more to his roots in one of his latest, Star Island. I still hope for greatness from his latest work. Even a cynic can dream, right?