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Monthly Archives: March 2011

Hey, Hey, We’re the Slut Puppies: Basket Case

Book #4 for 2011: Basket Case by Carl Hiaasen

My girlfriend Amy’s a fan of Carl Hiaasen. Her brother is a fan of Carl Hiaasen. An ex-boss of mine was a fan of Carl Hiaasen and once loaned me a copy of Hiaasen’s novel Stormy Weather, which I regrettably never got around to finishing. It seems like the whole world loves Carl Hiaasen and who am I not to give him a fair reading?

So I picked up Basket Case because it looked like fun. And it was. It’s not exactly a mystery novel because it’s pretty obvious almost from the beginning who the killer is. (I tried picking out a less likely suspect, but this proved pointless.) So call it crime fiction or even newspaper reporter fiction, if that’s a genre. It’s about a neurotic obituary writer who picks up a story about a recently deceased rock star who fronted an over-the-hill band called Jimmy and the Slut Puppies and decides he can use it to get a much-coveted front page assignment. (The title of the novel comes from one of the band’s moldy oldie hits, though it obliquely describes the obituary writer himself, who is obsessed with comparing his own age with the ages of dead celebrities, especially ones he hasn’t quite outlived yet.) The story turns into a murder case and Hiaasen complicates the plot by pitting the writer against the clueless rich kid whose family has taken over the paper he works for. Along the way Hiaasen demonstrates considerable knowledge of classic rock and namechecks a lot of actual performers and albums from the 60s through 80s, which suggests that Hiaasen is about the same age as I am. (I’ll check Wikipedia after I write this and see.)

All of this is breezy and fun, with a carefully constructed plot, some chuckles, and characters that are fresh and a little quirky without ever descending into zaniness. If I have a problem with the novel it’s a problem that I have with a lot of detective and mystery fiction: There’s not really a lot that stays with you afterward. I’m not sure if this is a complaint, exactly; the purpose of the book is clearly to provide light diversion and on that score it delivers. And, because Hiaasen’s unquestionably good at what he does, I’ll probably read more by him in the future.

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Reader’s Block: Desperation

Book #3 for 2011: Desperation by Stephen King

Book #3? It’s March and I’m only up to Book #3?

Okay, so I’m not exactly off to an auspicious start in my 2011 reading project, but at least I didn’t make any promises on how many books I planned to read before year’s end. In late January, after I’d reported on the two Scott Spencer novels I read that month, I found myself wavering on what I wanted to read next. I picked up several books, read a few chapters of each, and put them aside, unsure if I really wanted to commit all that much time to them. Finally, getting tired of my own lack of decisiveness, I decided I needed a book with a killer opening, the sort of thing that would grip me instantly and defy me to put it down. What I needed was…Stephen King.

This strategy worked, at least for a while. I’d seen the hardback edition of Stephen King’s Desperation in an airport bookstore back in 1996 and thought it looked like something I’d want to read. King had been a favorite writer of mine for quite a few years, but I was struck less by his name than by the cover art, which was designed to mesh stylistically with the cover of The Regulators, the hardback Richard Bachman novel that King released around the same time. (The two books are linked, though don’t ask me how.) Because I was reading only sporadically during that period, it wound up taking me 15 years to actually pick up the book.

All I knew of the book was that it was about a rogue cop terrorizing a small Nevada town called Desperation. That is indeed how it starts and it’s a slam bang opening. King builds suspense from the first  pages, playing neatly off that most sweat-inducing of modern fears: fear of seeing a police car in your rearview mirror. I figured King wouldn’t be able to sustain the novel’s momentum, though, and that before long it would go a bit slack, but he sustains it a lot longer than I expected him to. He does this by  introducing a fairly large set of characters and giving them lengthy and interesting backstories. In fact, he sustains the story’s momentum very nicely for about the first third of this quite lengthy novel.

Alas, it does finally go slack. Once King has his chess pieces in place, the rest plays out as though he has ceased having much fun with the game. He dutifully moves the pieces where they need to go, but the characters seem increasingly lifeless and King’s sense of who they are begins to waver. As in many similar novels, the more the reader learns about what’s really going on, the less interesting the story becomes. Eventually, the story of the rogue cop becomes an apocalyptic fantasy about the battle between two gods, the Judeo-Christian one and an ancient Lovecraftian entity named Tak accidentally released from its tomb under the Nevada desert. The novel rallies a bit in the final third, as King introduces more backstory and finally shows all the cards that he has in his hand, but it never regains the momentum that it had in the first third.

Too bad, because the book is a very long slog and about three weeks of my life disappeared into it. Still, I enjoy watching King at work even when he’s nodding a bit, as he is here. For what it’s worth, there’s at least a third of a really good book here.

*******

As for my reading in the remainder of this year — I doubt that I’ll come anywhere near the 52 I was shooting for last year and I’m more than a little dubious about even managing 26. The problem at this point is that I have a lot of reading I need to do for my own work, a lot of which will consist of magazine articles and portions of books. And it will be this reading that I’ll be devoting most of my time to. But I’ll keep reporting on the books that I finish, or at least most of them, as I go. Anyone tempted to hold their breath until I file the next of these reports, though, will probably get very blue in the face.