Basket Case (novel)
First edition cover
|Publisher||Alfred A. Knopf (USA) & Macmillan (UK)|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||336 pp (hardback edition)|
|ISBN||0-375-41107-0 (hardback edition) & ISBN 0-446-61193-X (paperback edition)|
|LC Class||PS3558.I217 B37 2002|
|Preceded by||Sick Puppy|
|Followed by||Skinny Dip|
Basket Case, published in 2002, is the ninth novel by Carl Hiaasen. It is a classic Hiaasen crime novel, set in Florida, and centers on the death of singer James Stomarti (aka Jimmy Stoma), an ostensibly washed-up former lead man of "Jimmy and the Slut Puppies".
A typical Hiaasen protagonist, a journalist, suspects the widow of former rocker Jimmy Stoma to be involved in his death, and investigates the case while dealing with several personal issues. This novel marks the first time Hiaasen used first-person point of view to deliver the novel. In previous works, he used third-person view.
In addition to being a good old-fashioned murder mystery, the novel is also a frank exploration of the pros and cons of a career in newspaper journalism, and a passionate screed against the downsizing of American newspapers and their corporate owners’ emphasis on profitability over depth. This theme is introduced tentatively in Hiaasen’s novel Lucky You but explored fully here.
Explanation of the novel's title
The book is named for the fictional Jimmy Stoma's hit song. While writing the book, Hiaasen collaborated with singer-songwriter Warren Zevon, a longtime friend. The song appears as the second track on Zevon's 2002 album My Ride's Here. It is quoted several times throughout the book, and is printed in its entirety at the end (credited to Jimmy Stoma and Warren Zevon).
Jack Tagger, aged forty-six, is an obituary writer for the Union-Register (a fictitious South Florida newspaper). He becomes excited on seeing a death notice for James Bradley Stomarti aka Jimmy Stoma, lead man of the rock band Jimmy and the Slut Puppies.
Jack interviews Jimmy’s widow, pop singer Cleo Rio (her stage name comes from the rumor that she flashed a sight of her pubic area during one of her music videos), who says that Jimmy died in a diving accident in the Bahamas. Cleo also plugs her new upcoming album, with a title song co-written by Jimmy and herself.
But after the obituary is printed, Jimmy's sister Janet tells him Cleo lied: Jimmy was working on his own comeback album. Jack gets more suspicious when he visits Jimmy’s corpse in a funeral home and find that no autopsy was performed on his body. However, before Jack can call for an official autopsy, Jimmy’s body is cremated.
Jack used to be an investigative reporter, but was demoted to the obituary beat after publicly insulting Race Maggad III, the CEO of the newspaper’s publishing company. His ambition is to climb back onto the front page by “yoking my byline to some famous stiff.” He tries to convince his editor, the “impossible” Emma to let him investigate Jimmy’s death, but she refuses.
Jack’s current job has taken its toll on his life; writing obituaries all day long, he has become morbidly obsessed with death, especially his own. Each year, Jack obsesses about people who died at his age, and about the fate of his deceased father, who disappeared when Jack was young. These obsessions cost him his favorite girlfriend, Anne.
Parked outside Cleo’s condominium one night, Jack sees her with a young man, an obvious sex partner.
Emma relents and gives Jack a week to investigate Jimmy's death. Jack tracks down Jay Burns, the Slut Puppies’ old keyboardist, and Jimmy’s dive partner. Jay is heavily stoned, but to Jack it is obvious he is lying about something. Later that night, a burglar breaks into Jack’s apartment. Jack attacks him with the frozen corpse of a dead Savannah Monitor lizard which he keeps in his freezer. Jack is beaten unconscious, but the burglar disappears. A few hours later, two police detectives show up and tell him Jay Burns has been found murdered.
His apartment trashed, Jack goes to stay with Emma. They decide to search the boat where he interviewed Jay. After careful searching, they find an external hard drive concealed inside the false bottom of a scuba tank.
Jack is depressed to hear from his friend Carla Candilla, Anne’s teenaged daughter, that Anne is getting married again — worse, to a hack spy novelist. Meeting her at a club, he catches sight of Cleo's boyfriend, a man who calls himself "Loreal" and claims to be her record producer.
Jack and Emma are alarmed when Janet disappears from her home. Jack finds a small patch of blood on her carpet.
With the help of Jack's best friend, sports writer Juan Rodriguez, Jack decrypts the hard drive and finds it contains master recordings for Jimmy’s unfinished new album. Listening to it, Jack is still baffled in looking for a motive for Jimmy’s murder, if he was murdered. The cruel fact is, to most of the music industry Jimmy was a has-been.
To Jack’s surprise, Emma spends the night with him at his apartment. A few days later, she excitedly tells him that another former Slut Puppy, Tito Negroponte, was shot but not killed in Los Angeles. Jack flies to California and interviews the bass player, who puts his finger on why Cleo killed Jimmy: she wanted a song from his album, “Shipwrecked Heart” for herself. Jack listens to the song, telling Emma that Cleo’s desperate to put out another hit before she fades from the scene, and Jimmy’s song is better than anything she can write. Still, Jack admits that he can’t prove that Cleo killed Jimmy.
Cleo's bodyguard kidnaps Emma, and she demands the master in exchange for her. At the climactic confrontation on Lake Okeechobee, Jack and Juan meet the bodyguard and Loreal, and trade the master for Emma. Then the bodyguard tries to kill all of them, but ends up upending the airboat he’s driving, with fatal results for himself and Loreal.
The day after the rescue is Jack’s 47th birthday. Carla calls from Anne's wedding to wish him a happy one. Jack’s mother sends him a card with a copy of his father’s obituary; she confesses that he died at age 46. (“See? You made it!”)
Janet resurfaces, saying she skipped town when Cleo’s goons broke into her house. She confesses to Jack that she switched the tags on a pair of coffins at the funeral home, meaning Jimmy’s body wasn’t cremated, but is buried in the wrong man’s grave. At her request, the body is exhumed, and autopsied, and the pathologist finds that Jimmy was drugged before diving off the boat, causing him to pass out underwater and drown. Cleo is arrested, tried, and convicted of murder; Jack sails back onto the front page covering the story. Jimmy’s posthumous album is a hit.
A subplot focuses on Jack’s ongoing feud with Race Maggad III, and the ailing state of the Union-Register since Maggad bought it. Maggad’s policy has been to increase the newspaper’s profits to the maximum by cutting down as much as possible on the actual gathering and reporting of news – less space in the paper devoted to news and more to advertisements, fewer reporters and editors employed, and stories that are deferential to business interests and lacking in depth. After Jack insulted him at a shareholders’ meeting, Maggad demoted Jack to the obituary page, expecting him to quit in humiliation. Instead, Jack finds an ally in MacArthur Polk, the newspaper's former publisher. Like Jack, Polk is furious about what Maggad has done to his newspaper, and now holds a position of power, because he owns a large number of shares in Maggad’s publicly traded company, which Maggad is desperate to buy back before two foreign companies initiate a hostile takeover.
Polk dies on the same night Jack rescues Emma. His will names Jack trustee of his shares, with instructions that Maggad can have the stock back, but only if he sells the Union-Register back to Polk’s family. Maggad reluctantly agrees. The new publisher, Polk’s widow, restores the paper to its former glory. Emma is promoted, and the novel ends as she is trying to talk Jack back from his leave of absence from journalism.
Characters in Basket Case
- Jack Tagger, journalist now relegated to the obituaries section
- Cleo Rio, widow of Jimmy Stoma
- Emma, Jack's editor and lust interest
- James Bradley Stomarti, AKA Jimmy Stoma, the musician and the victim
Allusions to actual history, geography and current science
- The novel is peppered with references to famous persons and the ages they died:
- 27: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Brian Jones and Jim Morrisson (a series of rock performers sometimes collectively referred to as "The 27 Club.")
- 29: Hank Williams
- 32: Keith Moon
- 33: John Belushi
- 36: Marilyn Monroe and Bob Marley
- 39: John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Dennis Wilson
- 40: Franz Kafka, John Lennon, Jack London and Edgar Allan Poe
- 41: Bebe the bottlenose dolphin, "one of seven who played Flipper on TV."
- 42: Elvis Aaron Presley (mistakenly described as 46 at the time of his death);
- 44: F. Scott Fitzgerald
- 46: John F. Kennedy and George Orwell
- 47: Jack Kerouac
- 50: Steve McQueen
- 52: Harry Nilsson
- 70: Nelson Rockefeller
- 82: Frank Sinatra
- 87: Jacques-Yves Cousteau
- 88: Orville Redenbacher
- 92: Deng Xiaoping
- Likewise, Jack names his pet Savannah Monitor lizard "Colonel Tom," because he acquired him on the anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker.
- According to his press clippings, Jimmy Stoma was once arrested for indecent exposure after appearing on stage wearing only a condom and a rubber mask likeness of Reverend Pat Robertson.
- Several real-life rock and pop stars appear as attendees at Jimmy's funeral, including Eddie and Alex Van Halen, Ray Cooper, Joan Jett, Courtney Love, Teena Marie, Ziggy Marley, Michael Penn, and Mike Campbell; Jett is also mentioned as a guest at Jimmy's wedding, along with Steven Tyler and John Entwistle.
- Jay Burns is unnerved to learn that he is the same age (40) as John Lennon when he died, and somewhat encouraged to hear from Jack that Billy Preston and Gregg Allman, two of his music idols, are still alive (Preston died in 2006, four years after the novel's publication).
- Early in the novel, Jack considers Emma too soft-hearted to be a good journalist, especially when she objects to him writing obituaries that include mention of a deceased person's criminal past; he wryly reflects that, "if Emma had been running the show, Richard Nixon's obit would have dealt with Watergate parenthetically, if at all."
- When Emma asks Jack what the elderly MacArthur Polk wants from him, Jack wryly replies, "a front-page obituary making him sound like a cross between Ben Bradlee and St. Francis of Assisi";
- Jack privately reflects that he went into journalism because he wanted to emulate Bob Woodward or Sy Hersh;
- Jack is apprehensive about reading his father's obituary, since some persons "earn" mention in the newspaper for egregious crimes, recalling that "Bruno Hauptmann got quite a boisterous send-off in the media[.]"
- There appear to be some similarities between the plotline and certain theories involving the death of Kurt Cobain, particularly the conspiracy theory that Courtney Love murdered Cobain and all the songs on her "Live Through This" album were written by him.
- The lack of an autopsy regarding Jimmy Stoma may be a reference to Jim Morrison since no autopsy was ever conducted on him.
- Race Maggad III is seen as a thinly veiled caricature of Tony Ridder, who was CEO of Knight-Ridder, the owner of the Miami Herald, Hiaasen’s own paper. Hiaasen’s Jack Tagger has a wide range of epithets for Maggad, the kindest of which is “imposter,” and the most invective of which are “money-grubbing yupster twit” and “vapid yuppie puke.” Like Maggad in the novel, Tony Ridder was criticized for attempting to boost Knight-Ridder’s profits by cutting down the staffs of its newspapers. It was also under Ridder that KR moved its corporate headquarters from Miami to San Jose, California. Hiaasen incorporates both of these in the novel:
- “Race Maggad is aiming for annual profits of twenty-five percent, a margin that would be the envy of most heroin pushers.”
- “The priorities of young Race Maggad III became clear when, out of the blue, he announced that Maggad-Feist would be moving its corporate headquarters from Milwaukee to San Diego. A corporate press release claimed that the reason for the move was to capitalize on the dynamic, high-tech workforce in California. The truth is more banal: Race Maggad wanted to live in a climate where he could drive his German sports cars year-round, far from the ravages of Wisconsin winters. The salt damage to his Carrera alone was rumored to be in the five figures."