HERALD COLUMNIST EXPLAINS HIS COLLABORATION WITH CLASSIC ROCKER WARREN ZEVON
AND REVEALS THE WORLD'S WEIRDEST OBITUARY HEADLINES.
RON HOGAN | Carl Hiaasen's latest novel,
Basket Case, is set in the anything-goes Florida he's written about in
eight previous novels and his twice-weekly column
for The Miami Herald. But it's the first novel he's written that features
a journalist as the main character Jack Tagger, a former investigative
reporter who's been busted down to the obituary section for offending his corporate
masters. When he realizes that the death notice that's just crossed his desk
is about Jimmy Stoma, the former lead singer of Jimmy and the Slut Puppies,
he thinks he may be on to a story... but nobody except Hiaasen could possibly
anticipate the twists and turns his research takes. The novel also includes
the lyrics to Jimmy and the Slut Puppies's biggest hit, also called "Basket
Case," which is, in reality, a collaboration between Hiaasen and classic
rocker Warren Zevon
that appears on Zevon's new record.
This is the first novel you've ever written
in the first person. What prompted you to tell the story from Jack's point of
The first-person pronoun isn't something you use a lot in daily
journalism, so I'd always been leery of it, but I'd always wanted to try writing
a novel in the first person. I knew it would be a big transition for me, but
I thought that if I had the right character, someone whose head I could stand
to be in for the entire story, and who I could eventually get to like, then
I could make the jump.
That's why I chose Jack. I'd been wanting to do a story about
obituary writing for a long time, and I thought that if I made the protagonist
a middle-aged journalist someone roughly my age, who'd come into journalism
at the same time I did, during the idealistic era just after Watergate when
Woodward and Bernstein were our heroes I could identify with him and
write with a voice that rang more true.
Obviously your career is a lot more secure than Jack's.
Sure, I haven't had the bad luck he's had. I also haven't had
the opportunity to stand up at a stockholder's meeting and figuratively piss
on the shoes of the chairman of the board. But it's something every reporter
dreams about, so the nice thing about the novel is that I can let Jack do it.
But he's paid the price, and now he has to write his way back to respectability
hopefully to the front page. The beat that he's on, though... I always
wondered how people could write obituaries day in and day out, constantly dealing
with death and dead people, and not have it affect them in some way. If you're
already in your mid-40s, you're probably confronting the fact that you're not
immortal. It raised some interesting questions, and I thought Jack would be
a good person to have ruminating about that stuff.
So do you have your own collection of great obituary headlines?
I have a few tacked up on the wall. The New York Times headline
in the novel "Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolan of Mauritius Dies At Age
85" is a real headline that I've saved for years. It really is my
favorite obituary headline ever. There's another one from the Times that
appears in the book: "Ronald Lockley, An Intimate of Rabbits." That's
all it says. He was a very famous naturalist, most famous for his work with
rabbits. But to be immortalized with a headline like that that's pretty
Along with the mystery that drives the plot, Basket Case
has a very passionate defense of a certain type of journalism, and a no-
holds barred attack on how corporate newspaper owners have diminished what Jack,
and presumably you, see as that mission.
That's me, absolutely. In every novel I've written, there are
characters who get to make a few speeches, get to rant and rave about things
that I've said or wished that I've said. The newspaper world today is definitely
not what it was 20 years ago. The general dumbing-down of the daily newspaper
has been well-documented. For the reporter in the trenches, it's unnerving and
demoralizing to watch when your paper can no longer cover a city or a town because
they don't have enough warm bodies to do it. It means the readers aren't getting
the information they need and it's all about money. It always has been.
It's an age-old battle, but now it's getting insidious because it's big corporations
that are buying up the papers and stripping them down. Then they wonder why
circulation and readership are declining. The answer's real simple they
aren't putting enough news in the papers. But they haven't figured that out
It must be difficult to attract new reporters because not only
are papers no longer hiring as much as before, many savvy, talented young writers
would rather not subject themselves to those conditions. You get people like
the intern in your novel who's basically spending time at the paper as a fun
thing to do before he buckles down and enters business school.
I just gave a commencement at the University of Miami's College
of Communications. They have programs in advertising, public relations, broadcasting,
and journalism, and by far the fewest number of graduates were in print journalism.
Everyone knows it's not a profession you go into to for money or glory. It's
because you believe it's the right thing to do. But it's not what it used to
be, and smart graduates know that this is a business whose future is pretty
But there are a lot of great reporters who went on to success
in other fields, and journalism has also produced a lot of great writers and
novelists, because there's no better way to learn about the world than sitting
in a big city newsroom and having it laid out in front of you every single day.
It turned out that many of the terrorists involved in the September
11 attacks were based, at least for a little while, in Florida. How have you
dealt with that, and with the situation in general, in your journalism? Have
you had to adjust your tone in any way?
No. For the first month or so, we were all writing what we felt:
horror, misery, and grief. None of us felt much like laughing, and we didn't.
But as time passes, and we redirect some of these emotions, particularly the
anger and outrage, humor becomes a way for many of us to deal with the aggressive
feelings inside. Once Letterman and Leno started making the bin Laden jokes,
it sort of became okay for the rest of us, and in the long run it's therapeutic
and healthy for us to be able to laugh again.
Laughter doesn't diminish the losses we experienced or the crime
itself, but it sure helps when you have a target as deserving of ridicule as
these guys. At first I wasn't comfortable writing about them in my column, but
now I don't think it's an unhealthy thing for Americans to be amused at the
notion of this big, bad terrorist huddled in a cave picking bat guano out of
his beard while B-52s pound the living tar out of Afghanistan. I'm not speaking
for the rest of the country, but to me that's a comforting image. I want him
to be miserable, and I like the idea it's an image that brings a smile
to my face, and I think there's nothing wrong with presenting that as a satirical
In your years of covering crime and corruption in Florida,
you must have seen dozens of things that were as bizarre, if not more so, than
fundamentalist Muslim terrorists hanging out in strip clubs.
There's proof that irony isn't dead. One of the first things you
have to write about in this story is these guys are on their way to see Allah
and, if the stories are to be believed, they're stuffing $100 bills in strippers'
G-strings. The hypocrisy of it is amazing, and the fact that 14 of them were
apparently enjoying themselves while they lived in Florida... This [Western]
culture that's so evil, such a poison to their religious beliefs, was something
they settled into quite readily. They might have prayed differently when they
got together in private, but they sure put on a good act the rest of the time.
Do you have any plans to address the situation in your fiction?
We've had terrorist groups in Florida for years among the Cuban
exile community, and if you dared to speak out against them, or what they believed,
they'd blow up your car or shoot you. So we've had experience dealing with this
sort of thing here.
In Tourist Season, I had a completely bumbling terrorist
who was always blowing up the wrong car, couldn't remember the name of his organization
because it kept changing, and wasn't even sure what he was fighting for half
the time. You could take a character like that and do a Mohammed Atta version
of him, or the guy who stays out at the strip club all night and spends the
next morning on his knees praying to Allah. It would be easy to slip somebody
like that into a cast of characters, but a whole novel? A satirical novel about
Middle Eastern terrorism isn't something I'd want to try to tackle at the moment.
We have no idea how it's going to turn out, but we can be pretty sure there's
going to be more bloodshed here at home. So it'd be risky to write that kind
of story now. But maybe someday we'll live in a safe enough world that we can
look back and say, "God, what a bunch of putzes they were."
How did the collaboration with Warren Zevon come about?
I'm a friend of Warren's, and I'd written some lyrics with him
a long time ago for songs on one of his other albums. So after I finished Basket
Case, I had some fictional lyrics to a song sprinkled throughout the book,
and while they were fun to write, I didn't have a whole song. I thought it would
have been cool to have one song, something that sounded authentic, like an '80s
song that Jimmy and the Slut Puppies would have done. So I talked to Warren,
showed him the book, and asked him if he'd be interested in helping me finish
I thought he'd turn me down, because he was trying to finish his
album, but he thought it could be fun. I didn't have anything to do with the
music that was all Warren, and it was very kind of him to do that. It
was a true act of friendship. While he and I faxed lyrics back and forth to
each other, he was working on a guitar lick, and eventually he sent me a CD
that he burned of a demo version of the song. It was basically just him and
his guitar, but it was still better than anything that Jimmy and the Slut Puppies
would have actually done. "We have to be careful not to make this too good,"
I told him. "It'll spoil the joke!"
the editor of the literary website Beatrice.com.
is a freelance writer specializing in book reviews and pop culture journalism.
Photograph by Elena Seibert.