Star Island by Carl Hiaasen (2010)

The setup

Cherry Pye aged 22 (p.396) is a teenage American pop star. She was born Cheryl Gail Bunterman and her ambitious mother, Janet Bunterman was entering her for into talent competitions from the age of 4. Little Cheryl’s voice was poor but her parents compensated by dressing her in provocative clothes and getting her dance lessons from a local stripper. They changed her name to the soft porn-sounding Cherry Pye when she got her first speaking part in a TV show, aged 14, wearing a ‘dubious buckskin cowgirl outfit’ (p.5).

Cherry was spotted by pop impresario, closet paedophile and owner of Jailbait Records, Maury Lykes, who gave her 3 months of intensive coaching and released her first single on Cherry’s birthday. It wasn’t actually Cherry on the single, she was never going to be able to sing, they hired a backing singer and concentrated on teaching Cherry how to dance and lip sync ahead of the lucrative tours organised to cash in on the record (p.20). Together, Janet and Maury developed a special look to establish Cherry’s brand:

‘The BLS brand’, Maury called it – barely legal slut, the essential ingredient being an air of insouciant fuckability. (p.279)

But as a result of all this, Cherry (‘a simpleton, shallow as a thimble’, p.281), at the age of 22, has developed a major drug habit. More accurately, she scarfs down whatever is on the table, be it alcohol, pills or powders, even birdseed! The narrative opens as Cherry’s lying on the floor of a premier room at the luxury Stefano hotel, throwing up (again), worried over by her team, her mother, a young actor she spent the early evening with, her pair of identical twins PR advisers, Lila and Lucy Lark (backstory p.172), and her tough minder, Lev, formerly of the Israeli Mossad. They’re all waiting for the private paramedics to arrive, take Cherry to a private hospital and pump her stomach. Again.

It’s such a recurrent problem that Cherry’s team have a tried and tested procedure in place. For some time they have been using a body double, a lookalike, an actress who is the spitting image of Cherry, to fill in for her, to make public appearances, to attend celebrity parties and so on, when the real Cherry is either in intensive care or at one of her many visits to a rehab clinic.

This double is named Ann DeLusia, aged 24 (p.212), an aspiring actress. She gets fed up sometimes by being at Cherry’s mother’s beck and call, but the pay is good, $800 a week (p.100).

The other character we’re introduced to early on is a paparazzo, Claude ‘Bang’ Abbott, 44 (p.316), a fat, unhygienic slob, but a very good photographer with deep experience in newspaper work (‘back in the day when newspapers mattered’, p.25) before he switched to the more lucrative career of snapping celebrities’ unguarded moments.

Bang got a hot tip about Cherry’s latest overdose from hotel staff, but was then fooled into following and photographing Ann, the lookalike, who was brought out the back of the hotel on a gurney, rather than the real Cherry who was smuggled out the front into a nondescript car. Only as he closes the ambulance doors, does the paramedic reveal that Bang has been ‘had’, much to his irritation.

Bang is convinced that pretty soon Cherry is going to do an Elvis and expire on the john, overdose or generally ‘buy the farm’ i.e. die young – and he wants to have built up a portfolio of photos of the teen star in all possible states of wastage so that he’ll be in a position to bring out an entire coffee table book recording her sorry descent. Think Marilyn. He’ll make a fortune, be able to retire. That’s the plan. Wasted Cherry is his pension.

Pause to assess

So, as usual, Hiaasen is extremely effective at introducing us very quickly to quite a gallery of characters, each drawn with swift precise descriptions, so that within 40 or so pages an entire corrupt and rancid world has been vividly depicted.

As to the subject matter, regular readers of my blog know that I got progressively more disillusioned by the novels of William Gibson as he turned his back on his science fiction roots and wrote longer and longer books which aspire to be thrillers but also feature characters from fictional rock bands, thrillers in which the lead characters wear ‘cool’ leather jackets, ripped t-shirts and shades. Gibson’s early science fiction novels are strange and mind-expanding, while his later ‘thrillers’, especially in their tiresome depictions of the cool world of rock bands, are lame and clichéd.

So I am, in theory, bored of novels set in the shallow, cynical, drug-addled world of pop stars and celebrities and so, in theory, ought to dislike this one, too. Not only do I have a general aversion to this milieu, but Hiaasen has already set one novel in the corrupt world of contemporary music, Basket Case, centring on the murder of a leading rock star who, it turns out, was done in by his scheming wife. It’s a little disappointing that Hiaasen has resorted to covering the same territory twice in the space of just four novels.

On the other hand, it is still a Hiaasen novel, which means that even when it has hints of being a retread, it is outrageously funny. Instead of Gibson’s po-faced and pretentious world, Hiaasen’s savagely amoral frolics skip along at a cracking pace, the dialogue is razor sharp, the characters continually taking your breath away with their stunning amorality.

Unexpected alliances, arguments and double crosses come thick and fast. It is, in other words, continuously shocking and surprising and very entertaining. The characters aren’t rude, they are off-the-scale amoral, cynical, manipulative, grotesquely threatening and violent.

Take the moment when Maury, frustrated at Cherry’s behaviour, has treated himself to a quiet night in, and invites three underage prostitutes round to tie him to his bed and take turns spanking him with badminton rackets. That’s when he gets a phone call from Chemo, the grotesque bodyguard he’s hired to find Cherry when she disappears (again). Hence Chemo’s call, except Chemo announces that now he’s found the errant pop star, he’s not going to return her unless he gets more money, not least because she taunted him (Chemo) about his grim appearance. Hence the call:

Chemo said, ‘You wanna see her alive, then double my pay.’
‘Unfuckingbelievable.’
‘She called me “Waffle Face”. Normally I’d kill a person for that. Normally I’d stick a frog gig up their nostrils and yank their tongue out by the roots.’ (p.117)

It’s a kind of peak Hiaasen moment: the rancid pedophile agent being tied down and whipped by pubescent girls having to negotiate with a 6 foot nine freak hitman about the ransom for a drug-addled, talentless celebrity.

Presumably there are, somewhere in America, a few people who aren’t cynical, amoral, criminal, corrupt and violent scumbags, who don’t instantly resort to fury and physical violence whenever their slightest whim or plan is thwarted. Presumably. Somewhere. But not in Carl Hiaasen’s novels.

Plot developments

As a result of the Stefano hotel meltdown, Cherry is sent to rehab, again and Janet tells Ann DaLusia she can take a few days off, so she drives down to Florida which she’s always wanted to see. She takes the Card Bridge route onto Key Largo and is whizzing round a corner when she sees a man standing in the middle of the road, swerves and goes careening off the road, through a stand of trees and crashes into a creek. Oops.

Anna wakes up to find herself being tended by Skink, SKINK, Hiaasen’s most popular recurring character, the semi-deranged former Florida governor-turned-eco-vigilante, complete with plastic shower cap, long grey braids and dazzling smile.

As in each of the books he appears in, the author gives us a slightly new version of Skink’s backstory as well as a variation on his motivation, namely the depthless outrage he feels at the rape of the wild countryside he grew up in:

The cherished wild places of his childhood had vanished under cinder blocks and asphalt, and so, too, had the rest of the state been transformed – transformed by greedy suckworms disguised as upright citizens. From swampy lairs Skink would strike back whenever an opportunity arose, and the message was never ambiguous. (p.197)

But it doesn’t do to sentimentalise Skink. He is a violent vigilante. At one point he’s hiding out under a pier down on a beach late at night and happens to hear two men manhandling a drunk woman down onto the sand and then knocking her down with a view to raping her. Skink moves in and the paramedics who are later called to the scene are impressed to discover that each of the men has a compound fracture in every limb (p.239). Skink did that, not just beat them up but carefully broke their bones. We are told that from time to time he eats the pets of disagreeable people (p.262). He ties up a Haitian cabbie and steals his cab when it suits him (p.264). He is not a sweetheart. He is genuinely dangerous.

Having pulled her from her crashed car, Skink takes her off to his remote camp in the forest, tends to Ann’s light injuries and feeds her some roadkill alligator tail, which isn’t as disgusting as she first fears. But when she asks to be taken back to civilisation, Skink explains that first she has to help him with his latest scam. This is to hold up a bus full of corrupt and wealthy investors who are engaged in yet another of the countless crooked and environmentally ruinous property developments which Hiaasen’s novels are full of.

Skink tells Ann to step into the road and flag down the bus carrying the developers from the airport to a private hotel facility. Then he leaps out of the bushes and onto the bus terrorises them with a gun, and tying the most corrupt of them, Jackie Sebago, to a tree with a sea urchin stuffed down his pants and rammed into his ‘nutsack’.

By the time the cops arrive, Ann is ready with her story that her car crashed then she doesn’t remember anything till stumbling onto the bus. The cops believe her, let her go, and Ann returns to civilisation pretty dazed by this weird encounter.

Meanwhile, at the Rainbow Bend rehab centre Cherry has met Methane Drudge, drummer with fictional band the Poon Pilots (p.51) (shades of William Gibson and fictional rock bands with lame names).

Together they break out of the rehab grounds, scrambling over the five foot wall. Methane twists his ankle landing, and limps badly as he follows Cherry to the road. Here they discover a car parked and Cherry knocks on the window. The electric window winds down to reveal none other than Cherry’s fanatical paparazzo devotee, Bang Abbott, who is amazed at Cherry’s sudden apparition and staggered when she asks him to drive her to the airport. There is some typically brutal comedy when lame Methane knocks on the back door window asking to be admitted to the car but Cherry blithely tells Abbott to drive off and leave him behind.

Not only that but when they get to the airport and she whistles up her private jet, Cherry impulsively invites Abbott onto the plane to accompany her. So the excited fat man grabs his several cases of expensive cameras and jogs up the steps. And not only that, but half way across America (flying from California to Florida) bored, Cherry whips off her jeans and straddles him, presumably pulling out his pecker, because they have sex. It only last for four minutes but leaves Abbott seriously dazed and confused. (Women on top, riding a man in the ‘cowgirl position’, is Hiaasen’s favourite fictional sexual position, it recurs in most of the novels, most memorably enacted by Dr Rosa Campesino on a steel mortuary table in Bad Monkey.)

This brief intimacy doesn’t stop Abbott, when Cherry falls asleep, getting his camera out and knocking off some shots of Cherry lying asleep and snoring and unbuttoned and sprawled across her plane seat. These will prove excellent photos for the photo-biography he’s planning of her decline and fall.

However, all this comes to naught because, when they land in Miami, her chauffeur-driven car is waiting, the driver loads all the bags, including all Abbott’s cameras, and then, just as with Methane, she simply drives off before Abbott can get into the car, leaving Abbott stamping and fuming on the airport tarmac. Later, with an actor she’s picked up at an upscale nightclub, she reviews Abbott’s photos and blithely deletes them one by one.

Meanwhile, there is a significant development on the bodyguard front. The novel opens with young Cherry being bodyguarded by a tough goon named Lev, who is ex-Mossad. But goaded by Cherry’s mom one too many times, he quits, thus giving her manager, Maury Lykes, a headache about finding a replacement. Luckily he knows a country and western star, Presley Aaron, who went way off the rails for a period of addiction but turned his life around and is now fit and buff and recording again. The turnaround was managed by his brothers who hired a tough minder to guard him. It is this minder which Maury now hires to look after Cherry. She needs some tough love.

And as soon as Maury and Janet Bunterman are introduced to him in a nightclub, the seasoned Hiaasen reader immediately realises that Cherry’s new bodyguard is none other than the freakish sociopath nicknamed ‘Chemo‘ who we first met in novel 3 of the series, 1989’s Skin Tight.

Chemo, as you might imagine with Hiaasen, has a very detailed and freakish backstory (summarised on page 252 ff.). Suffice to say that Chemo stands 6 foot 9 inches tall, his face was fried in a freak accident during some minor plastic surgery (the dermatologist had a stroke and instead of excising a small growth, ended up applying the electric doodad across his whole face so that his face now looks like a bowl of rice krispies). Which explains why Chemo is in a permanently very bad mood. Most bizarre of all, after he had his hand bitten off by a barracuda in Skin Tight, he replaced it not with a prosthetic attachment, but with a battery-powered strimmer or weed whacker as the Americans call it.

Comedy

All this and more has been conveyed in less than the first hundred pages. The forms of Hiaasen’s comedy can be categorised into half a dozen or so levels or types:

Plots

Most obvious is the overall shape of the plots where grotesque and preposterous, farcically improbable events take place, such as the body double actress getting caught up in Skink’s hijacking of a coach full of property investors.

Characters

The characters themselves are often so grotesque as to be funny in themselves, such as the famously strong but half-deranged eco-vigilante Skink or the strimmer-handed, beanpole bodyguard Chemo. Although it is noticeable that this pair, the most garish and entertaining of all the characters in the book, were invented decades earlier (in 1987 and 1989, respectively).

Universal corruption

On a less extreme level, it is funny the way the narrator describes the semi-criminal or immoral activities of his characters, activities which most of us would regard as beyond the pale, but which the narrator mentions with a deliberate casualness designed to emphasise the rancid, rotten, corrupt and immoral culture he is dissecting. Such as the throwaway remark that Maury Lykes is not only a successful pop impresario but has a ‘criminal fondness for underage girls’ (p.20) and the later scene, only a few paragraphs long, in which he arranges for three underage girls who he’s promised parts in his next show, to come to his house, tied him with parachute cords to his bed and take turns spanking him with badminton rackets to the sound of the Disney track, ‘We’re all in this together‘ (p.116). That really is a standout scene.

On a quieter note, it is so casually said you barely notice it when Cherry tells the young actor Tanner Dane Keefe that he wants her to accompany her on her upcoming tour because: ‘I don’t like screwing strangers, especially roadies.’ (p.119) The implication being that, obviously, she has to be screwing someone, almost continuously, right, she’d just prefer if it was someone she knew or liked. That level of moral abandonment.

Compared to that level of debauchery it seems fairly bland, but nonetheless way out of most people’s orbit of experience, when the narrator explains that Janet put ups with her husband, Ned’s, long-standing bisexual affair with another married couple, a) because he’s good with Cherry’s earnings and b) because she herself ‘is sweatily involved’ with her 30-year-old tennis coach (p.68).

Everyone in Hiaasen novels is unfaithful. In fact it’s not clear that the idea of faithfulness exists any more. Why get married if you don’t want to have affairs?

Amorality

All the characters casually demonstrate the most breath-taking cynicism, putting into words ideas and collocations of incident and intention which are way beyond the average person’s experience:

Chemo was the first convicted murderer that Maury Lykes had ever put on the payroll, and he hoped the man understood the concept of boundaries. (p.116)

The comedy extends from what you could call high-level cynicism, through a hierarchy of criminality and casual amorality, down to the more gutter level of sheer venomous abuse, which all these horrible people routinely treat each other to:

Lev said, ‘I hope you get cancer of the schlong. I hope it falls off in your hand.’ (p.30)

It made me laugh because it’s so outrageous, and that summarises Hiaasen’s schtick in a phrase. These novels are outrageous festivals of amorality, horribleness and insult.

Seething narrator

Vituperation isn’t limited to the characters. The narrator himself boils with rage at the corrupt and scuzzy world around him. Within pages of starting reading the reader is forced to acclimatise to Hiaasen’s super-cynical attitude and abrasive phraseology. As a tiny example he doesn’t refer to Miami International airport but to ‘the clusterfuck known as Miami International’ (p.27), conveying three levels of implication:

  1. dropping the ‘airport’ because he assumes the reader is hip enough to get the reference
  2. letting the reader know his attitude to Florida’s ‘advanced’ i.e. heavily polluting and environmentally destructive infrastructure
  3. signalling that he isn’t shy about using latest American vernacular = there’s going to be a lot of swearing

So, there is comic entertainment to be enjoyed at multiple levels:

  • plot
  • character
  • the narrator’s seething cynicism
  • his characters’ cynical attitude
  • their whip-smart repartee
  • or plain old abuse

Silly nightclub names

It is a typical minor running gag running through his books that Hiaasen – not, we suspect, a great fan of cocaine-fuelled nightclubs full of drug dealers, crooked lawyers and property developers – gives comic names to the fictional nightclubs which appear in his novels.

Skin Tight featured a club named ‘the Gay Bidet’ where a whole series of ludicrously named punk bands performed and where Chemo, incidentally, worked part-time as a bouncer. Strip Tease featured a strip joint which changes its name from ‘The Eager Beaver’ to ‘Tickled Pink’, and in other books there’s the club named ‘Lube’. In the same spirit, in this novel Cherry meets young Tanner Dane Keefe at a South Beach nightclub named ‘Abscess’ (p.118), which brought a smile to my lips.

Later on, we are taken to a gimmicky nightclub named ‘Club Ortho’ where everyone has to wear a cast and pretend to have a broken bone (p.244). In the second half the fictional nightclub named ‘Pubes’ gets namechecked and in fact provides the setting for the rather feeble shooting of Abbott, which more or less ends the main narrative (see below).

As it happens, William Gibson also has a fondness for silly nightclubs, in his case less notable for their names than for their ‘wacky’ gimmicks, such as the bubblegum-themed bar or the Kafka-themed club or the restaurant with a full-sized replica Russian tank parked in the middle, The Western World. It is characteristic that Gibson’s comic bar ideas are strained and pretentious whereas Hiaasen’s are gleefully obscene. I go for glee every time.

More plot

Abbott wants his cameras back and wants access to Cherry. Therefore he stakes out the hotel Cherry has checked into and waits till Cherry exits the hotel and gets into the waiting limousine. He cleverly hijacks this by getting a bellhop to drop a load of cases in front of the car, blocking its way, so that the chauffeur and Chemo the bodyguard get out to angrily help the bellhop pile them back onto a luggage trolley, only to hear the limo reverse and skid off with Abbott at the wheel. So far, so clever except that… it is not Cherry in the limo but Ann the body double!

The central part of the novel will be built around this mistake, with Abbott at first not knowing what to do with the body double and then contacting Janet Bunterman offering to return Ann in one piece in exchange for one day with Cherry. (They worry that he’s a pervert but we know it’s not for sex purposes but in order to take a massive portfolio of photos which he can use when, as he expects, she ‘buys the farm’ i.e. dies).

Negotiations are then carried out between Abbott and Chemo, representing the Bunterman family and the manager, Maury, Abbott having first drugged Ann and locked her up in the boot of a hire car.

In fact there’s a whole sequence of meetings between the two men, with Chemo then reporting back Abbott’s demands to his employers, who carefully weigh the options. One option they consider is to let Ann die since, when she is returned a) she’s unlikely to want to continue the job b) if she spills the beans her story will go bigger in the press than Cherry’s comeback album and tour, so she represents a financial threat to all of them.

Now, when Skink released Ann, he gave her his mobile number and, during a moment to herself in a motel toilet, Ann manages to phone Skink and tell him she’s been kidnapped. Skink, though old enough to be her father, had taken a liking to Ann during their couple of days together in the wild Everglades, and so now he sets out on a quest to track her down and release her.

I expected this whole situation would lead up to a mega-violent confrontation but it doesn’t, instead it’s something of an anti-climax. The Buntermans eventually agree to Abbott’s terms, namely that Abbott gets a whole day with Cherry in Keefe’s house (which is on the detached, millionaire enclave of Star Island, which gives the novel its title) to do a serious photoshoot, all under the watchful eye of the baleful Chemo. In the end, all pretty reasonable and non-violent.

Nonetheless, on the way towards this event, the plot at moments feels like the Maltese Falcon, with increasingly complex double crosses all round: without telling Janet Maury pays Chemo to kill Abbott, but Abbott persuades Chemo they can make a fortune by selling the camera full of great fashion photos Abbott has just taken (Abbott is genuinely a good photographer). Meanwhile Abbott, while he had kidnapped Ann, took a load of photos of her with her hair over her face so she looks like Cherry, handcuffed to a bathroom sink, apparently shooting up with a syringe, and he’s gotten in touch with the editor of a tabloid newspaper with a view to selling them.

It all gets very convoluted, a pell-mell of crosses and double crosses, and yet I became steadily more detached, and a bit bored.  Maury tells Chemo to kill Abbott. Then to kill Ann. But Skink has by this time tracked down Ann and become her de facto bodyguard. Anyway, Chemo’s come to admire her spunky attitude. He thinks she’s a ‘pisser’, which is a term of praise.

The climax of the book is disappointing by Hiaasen’s standards. Cherry slips out of the house where she’s being kept to dry out before her upcoming tour and new album release and goes to the legendary nightclub Pubes. Here Ann is waiting for her and confronts her with what she intends to be the dazzling revelation that she, Ann, has been the spoilt little girl’s double for all these years and her parents never even told her.

But Cherry doesn’t respond with a sudden epiphany, a realisation of how shallow her existence is and a determination to turn her life around. She just attacks Ann, knocks her to the dancefloor (they’re in a nightclub) and starts feebly pummeling her until Chemo wades in, picks her up and takes her away.

Skink had come to the club with Ann (Ann had bought him a swanky suit and persuaded him to cut off his long grey braids) and he now picks her up and leaves with her.

Abbott is also at the club and furious with himself because he missed the shot of Cherry being carried out by Chemo. But then Ann calls out to him amid the scrum of paparazzi and he is just about to take her photo when a hired killer in the crowd takes out a gun and shoots him in the ass.

What? Why? Because in the complexity of the second half of the plot, Abbott had forgotten to pay off one of the many narcs and contacts he employs to routinely tip him off about celebs at hotels and bars. He has hundreds of them, he always owes them little sums of money, they’re calling and hassling him all the time, and he has been a little busy involved in a kidnapping scam. All this explains why he’s persistently ignored the calls of one contact in particular, and this guy has gotten so irritated that he’s hired a hitman to shoot Abbott.

So that’s the (rather thin) explanation for this climactic shooting except that… the man fails. They aren’t standing yards apart which would allow for a clean shot, they are smothered together in a heaving crowd and so the man only manages to shoot Abbott in the buttock. The shot disperses the crowd, including the hitman. Abbott is taken to hospital, the bullet removed, the damage to his big guts repaired. It’s all rather… inconsequential.

Tying up loose ends

Cherry’s album flops and the tour doesn’t sell out, so she changes her name and moves into TV. Ann works on a new career. Abbott returns to papping. With the revival of the property market, Chemo gives up being a gun for hire and returns to his former career selling mortgages (broad Hiaasian satire at the type of person who sells mortgages i.e. deranged murderers).

Skink disappears back into the boondocks, though it’s worth emphasising that the novel contains a distinct strand about a detective who has become interested in him. Remember Jackie Sebago the crooked property developer from the start of the book, whose coach Skink hijacks and down whose pants he stuffs a sea urchin? Well, one of the investors in his property development, a no-nonsense crim named Shea, insists he wants his money back and when Sebago is unable to return it ($850,000) because he’s spent it, Shea hires a hitman who kills Sebago by shooting him through the chest with a speargun.

The point being that the cops scour the locality of the murder and stumble across Skink’s camp in the outback. Detective Riley pieces together scattered appearances by Skink: holding up the coach, a speedboat is stolen from nearby; the testimony of the drunk woman who was saved from rape by a scruffy stranger on the beach; a man of the same description seizing the little pet dog out of the arms of a woman in a hotel lobby who was describing how her husband and friends clubbed some dolphins to death; and so on.

Riley gets so far as tracking Skink down to the Miami hotel where he’s staying with Ann, solely in the capacity of her protector. But as Detective Riley interviews, the couple Skink gives blissfully, surreally oblique answers and the cop doesn’t get anywhere. He’s looked up Skink’s record on computer and knows he served in Vietnam. He knows Skink now lives out in the woods not harming anyone. Well, unless they’re scumbags like Jackie Sebago. Detective Riley decides there’s no case against Skink, no evidence, and leaves town wishing him well.

This investigation-of-Skink storyline starts out being quite threatening, as if Skink might actually be arrested, but then becomes amusing but so inconsequential I wondered whether it was setting itself up for some kind of sequel. Will Detective Riley appear in subsequent novels and become Skink’s pursuer?

In this it’s a little like the other storylines, which all fizzle out. Cherry survives, Chemo survives, Ann survives, Skink survives and Abbott survives. They all go their separate ways. Is that it? Bit disappointing…

The banalisation of sex and drugs and guns

1. Sex

Fifty years ago, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a generation of idealists thought that, if we only took all our clothes off, acknowledged our sexuality, forsook sexual jealousy and indulged in free love, the world would become a better place. The results, like any great social change, were complex and mixed. Without doubt many millions of people experienced genuine personal liberation and the breaking  of taboos around gender and sexuality have been transformative.

On the other hand, the notion that simply getting naked and having sex changes or improves society has been roundly disproved. Arguably, the opposite has happened, and this novel contains numerous instances tending to indicate the way sex has ceased to have any special moral or psychological significance and become utterly debased, a bodily function with as much glamour or spiritual significance as having a crap.

Cherry is in one sense an embodiment of the complete degradation of sex to an empty transaction. She straddles and rides fat Abbott to orgasm because she’s bored. She whines to the young actor Keefe that she wants him to come on tour so she can fuck him instead of having to fuck the roadies, the implication being that she has to fuck someone on a daily, almost hourly basis. We are told that she got round her tough Israeli bodyguard, Lev, by fellating him on a regular basis or letting him ‘bone’ her with a platinum stud through the head of his penis. To get a room service boy at the Stefano to smuggle in drugs to her room (after Chemo has been made her bodyguard with strict instructions to keep her clean) Cherry offers the boy a blowjob.

In Hiaasen’s American sex has become a form of currency, just another version of the cash nexus.

And it isn’t just Cherry for whom sex is a mindless addiction. Abbott, aroused by remembering the mile high shag with Cherry, gets an erection while sitting in his car and whines that the steering wheel is getting in the way, so he shuffles over to the passenger seat to have a wank.

Knocking one off, squeezing one out, wanking, is as casual a business as wiping your nose, and as empty of meaning. From keeping close tabs on her, Chemo gets to know that when she has no-one to fellate or to bone her, Cherry sets her iphone to vibrate and puts it against her crotch so each incoming text or call stimulates her pussy (p.372).

At the bourgeois end of the spectrum, we learn that Cherry’s parents’ marriage is a purely business arrangement: her father has a long standing menage-a-trois with a Danish couple, the sophisticated Jorgensens, while her mom is boffing her tennis coach. So far, so normal, for American marriages.

At the other, more extreme end of the spectrum, we learn that the young actor Tana Dane Keefe has a part in the latest Tarantino movie where he plays a necrophiliac, ‘a corpse-diddling longboarder’ (p.205). It all reminds me of the old rugby song, ‘Bestiality’s best, boys, bestiality’s best.’

The trouble with this kind of thing, with the adolescent urge to shock, is that eventually there’s nowhere left to go. It is possible to hollow out human existence, the meaning of human life, entirely, until it’s completely empty. This is why I despise Tarantino and his ilk. It’s slavery for laughs, it’s murder for entertainment, it’s the death of any attempt to maintain manners, respect and subtlety. It is an insult to the human spirit. But hey, it wins Oscars!

So an infinitely more liberated approach to sex than was conceivable for most people in the 1960s has not led to a happier society or happier individuals, has it? Instead of being the road to freedom that the sexual liberationists imagined, sex has turned out to be just one more dead end, one more rut which only confirms our bad habits and bad decisions.

Relying on sex for a ‘fulfilled’ life is like relying on alcohol or any other drug. Sex has become just another activity like drinking or playing cards which is sometimes meaningful and significant but is mostly humdrum and often just a habit, a potentially smelly, selfish or disease-spreading habit. For the most part, for most of the scumbag characters in Hiaasen’s novels, sex has been emptied of any sacral or numinous meaning that it once had.

Hence the superficially funny but ultimately sad set of phrases which hip Americans have developed  to categorise different types of fuck, the mercy fuck, the sport fuck and the speed fuck (p.338). Fucks are now as coolly categorised and named as brands of handbag.

2. Drugs

Something similar for drugs. It’s a long time since the hippies recommended that we turn on, tune in and drop out. Since then we went through the cocaine wave of the 1970s, the crack cocaine wave of the 1980s, and for the last few decades America has been enjoying the growing tide of the opioid epidemic.

Cherry and her buddies are symptomatic of a generation which has no reservations whatsoever about drugs and so has become greedily, selfishly addicted to whatever it can get its hands on. Thus Cherry quite literally swallows any pills available, including at one mildly comic moment, a handful of dog de-worming pills, doggie laxatives (p.370).

In Cherry and young Tanner Dane Keefe’s hands drug culture has just become a pointless addiction, and their readiness to take anything, anything at all to get off their faces, is about as spiritual or psychologically enlightening as sitting in a pool of your own vomit stuffing your face with Big Macs.

Thus Cherry bribes the room service boy to bring her every illicit substance he can get his hands on and this adds up to: Zanax, tramadol, Ecstacy, Bayer gelcaps, Ex-Lax, banana nut Cheerios and a bottle of Stoli vodka (p.317) all of which she proceeds to swallow, vomiting copiously some time later.

3. Guns

Something similar is true of guns, by which I mean that, in stories like this, shooting people is just an everyday activity which some people do as casually as drinking a beer or having a wank. Shooting someone, like taking drugs or casual sex, has (not for all, but for a fair percentage of the characters) been emptied of any particular meaning.

This really came home in the scenes where Abbott has kidnapped Ann. He asks about her nose, which got hit during the kidnap, asks to borrow headache pills, discusses Cherry’s personality, threatens to shoot her, takes her into a MacDonalds for a meal, explains the realities of life as a paparazzo, threatens to shoot her. It’s just another topic of conversation thrown in among other rather humdrum chats. ‘Pass the ketchup. Oh yeah, if I can’t get the ransom for you, I’ll have to kill you, OK.’ It has ceased to register as a big deal.

In one of the hotels where Abbott is keeping Ann hostage, they actually have a tussle over his gun which Ann grabs hold of, and in their half-assed struggle, the gun accidentally goes off and shoots the tip of Abbott’s forefinger off, the one he uses to press the shutter on his camera, which is vital to his career.

It is remarkable how neither of the characters are particularly upset about this and neither is the author. Not only does it typify the casual approach to guns and gun injuries, it demonstrates something else as well. In previous novels something really grotesque would have happened to Abbott for him having been the baddie all the way through, but in this one, it’s as if Hiaasen can’t be bothered to come up with anything really macabre. The climax of the novel is that the bumbling kidnapper gets shot in the bum.

The casual way modern Americans think about shooting and killing is demonstrated in the closing stretches of the novel where Cherry’s manager, Maury, first of all considers letting Abbott kill the kidnapped Ann, then pays Chemo to kill Abbott, then (when he doesn’t), orders him to kill Ann.

Nothing personal, it’s all purely business, these are just tactics to protect Cherry’s ‘brand’ and not jeopardise the upcoming tour and CD release. In this world, killing people is a legitimate business strategy.

My point is that the threats to kill someone come quite casually in among a range of other humdrum conversational topics; that the activity of shooting someone either to wound or kill them; have become utterly banal and empty and meaningless, as trivial as offering them a cigarette or holding a door open for them or blowing their head off.

Bang Abbott shook his head. ‘Unbelievable. I may have to shoot the fucker.’ (p.257)

Maybe shoot the fucker. Maybe not. Meh. Whatever.

Repetition

I can’t help noticing that this novel repeats several ideas or tropes from previous books. The entire notion of satirising the music industry had previously formed the basis of novel 9 in the series, Basket Case. Admittedly, that was about grown-up rock and adult rock stars whereas this novel is about the distinct and different teenybop market and focuses on a stroppy teenage pop star. But still, it’s fundamentally about the same glossy, empty, pop music-fashion-nightclubbing scene.

The return of Skink and Chemo can either be seen as the welcome reprise of old favourites or… as a sign that Hiaasen was running out of ideas for the kinds of grotesque characters which infested his earlier fiction. Any way you cook it, Chemo is a straight retread from an earlier, much more imaginatively varied and powerful novel.

What crystallised this sense of repetition was when I read in chapter 12 that Cherry’s two PR people, the twins Lucy and Lila Lark, had a long-burning ambition to have plastic surgery in order to be transformed into completely identical twins. The thing is, this is very similar to the storyline in Sick Puppy about the two leggy East European ‘models’ Katya and Tish who are housed, fed and watered by the slimy ex-drug smuggling property developer Robert Clapley because he wants to use plastic surgery to turn them into an identical pair of Barbie dolls. Or, as he puts it with typically Hiaasenesque crudeness:

‘How often in a guy’s lifetime does he have a chance to get sucked off by two semi-identical six-foot dolls?’ (p.137)

Feels like the same basic idea.

And there’s another repeat of an earlier book: Chemo becomes so incensed by airhead Cherry’s repetition of the same limited lexicon, that he retrieves a cattle prod he bought soon after leaving prison, and gives her electric shocks every time she says ‘like’, ‘awesome’, ‘sweet’, ‘sick’, ‘totally’, ‘hot’ and ‘dude’ (p.301). Quite quickly he has to only gesture towards the prong and she corrects herself.

This is pretty funny, and an apt satire on the spread of airhead Legally Blonde lexicon among America’s teens, but we’ve been here before. In Stormy Weather Skink hijacks a couple of newly-weds and fits the asinine husband with a dog-training electric collar. Every time he steps out of line Skink inflicts a massive electric shock which knocks the husband unconscious. Quite quickly the husband anticipates the shocks, eventually falling and rolling on the floor before Skink’s even administered a shock.

Same basic idea. Just saying that, as I read on, I had a disconcerting sense of these repetitions and echoes which, when combined with the lame-ass ending, couldn’t but help suggesting a falling off in Hiaasen’s fertility.

The decline and fall of American journalism

Another recurring theme is Hiaasen’s laments for the decline of old-style journalism, which have featured in many of his novels and, taken together, form an interesting commentary on the decline and fall of American journalism. Early on the narrator laments a time:

Back in the day when newspapers mattered. (p.25)

As I’ve read Hiaasen’s novels through the 1980s and 1990s and 2000s, many aspects of the society he describes have changed (more drugs, more explicit sex, the internet) but one of these threads is his comments on how journalism and the newspaper industry have changed over that period, consistently for the worse.

The early comments (and because the first novel features a star journalist, his managing editor and other journalists in a busy Miami newspaper, it is stuffed with them) are idealistic. Hiaasen thinks it is journalism’s place to hold corrupt politicians and business-people to account. In the 1990s he laments the advent of accountants who reshaped many American newspapers into money-making machines by cutting back on actual journalism and replacing it with features, competitions and prizes.

Thus Basket Case is narrated by a down-on-his-luck journalist Jack Tagger who boils over with contempt for the ‘smooth yuppie’ Race Maggad III who has bought the traditional, old-school newspaper he (Jack) works for and is only interested in it as a money-making machine. For Jack there’s still something worth fighting for in the idea of a civic-minded journalism which serves its community.

But by the time we come to this novel, in 2010, the fat paparazzo, Bang Abbott, is dealing with hard-nosed editors who are themselves having a hard time competing with the internet. The internet presents two threats:

  1. It is immediate, unlike the creaking, 24-hour delay of hard copy newspapers.
  2. And it is democratic, in the sense that absolutely anyone can photograph or take a video of a newsworthy event and upload it in seconds and it will have gone viral before a journalist has even uncapped their pen or turned on their laptop.

It’s a tiny but interesting detail that the editor of the magazine (National Eye) which is the best customer for Abbott’s sleazy paparazzo photos, is not American but Australian, and that he learned his trade on Fleet Street – the implication being that the British press is much more hard-nosed, business-like and ethic-free than US journalism (pages 106 to 111). Certainly we in Britain have to be reminded from time to time just what corrupt scumbags a lot of our journalism is (e.g. the phone hacking scandal).

Obviously, in the 11 years since this novel came out in 2010, things have got significantly worse for newspapers everywhere and the press in America now faces an existential crisis.

I wonder whether Hiaasen’s laments about the death of journalism continue in his more recent books…

Final thought

In terms of satire, Sick Puppy is maybe Hiaasen’s most effective novel because it really explains the workings of corrupt property development and politicians, and the precise way both interact, doing behind the scenes deals, creaming off money, the arrangements whereby all the politicians involved get payoffs and backhanders, and how the tax-paying public are dazzled by the handful of civic amenities which are used to disguise all of this. The novel is festooned with Hiaasen’s trademark grotesquery and violence and macabre deaths and so on, but it also contains this genuinely fascinating deep dive into how this kind of corruption really works.

By contrast, Star Island is, on the face of it, a satire on the discrepancy between the squeaky clean world of teen pop stars and the reality of drug addiction, nymphomania and bulimia. You could also argue it contains a parallel satire about the gutter values of tabloid newspapers or celebrity magazines, with their endless appetite for photos of celebs in embarrassing or squalid situations and so on.

And yet, it doesn’t dig deep. A leading pop start turns out not to be able to sing and to be a nightmare of drugs and sex. Hmm. Tell me something I didn’t already know. Ditto paparazzi. Everyone knows those magazines are trash and the paps who cater for them are reptiles. I remember Spitting Image satirising tabloid journalists as pigs in suits back in the 1980s.

That’s why I don’t like fiction about these subjects, whether by William Gibson or Carl Hiaasen – simply because the subjects feel old and tired and over-familiar right from the start.


Credit

Star Island by Carl Hiaasen was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2010. All references are to the 2012 Sphere paperback edition.

Related links

Carl Hiaasen reviews

  1. Tourist Season (1986)
  2. Double Whammy (1987)
  3. Skin Tight (1989)
  4. Native Tongue (1991)
  5. Strip Tease (1993)
  6. Stormy Weather (1995)
  7. Lucky You (1997)
  8. Sick Puppy (2000)
  9. Basket Case (2002)
  10. Skinny Dip (2004)
  11. Nature Girl (2006)
  12. Star Island (2010)
  13. Bad Monkey (2013)
  14. Razor Girl (2016)
  15. Squeeze Me (2020)

Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen (2004)

‘For what it’s worth, I would never toss a woman off a ship after having wild sex with her. Or even tame sex.’
‘Spoken like a true gentleman.’
(Mick Stranahan and Joey Perrone, Skinny Dip, page 165)

Hiaasen was successful and well known by the time this, his tenth solo comedy thriller was published, and the cover of the paperback is thronged with the great and the good queuing up to praise him. Among them is one Boris Johnson who writes: ‘Hiaasen is the greatest living practitioner of the comic novel’, and who am I to question the literary judgements of the British Prime Minister?

The plot

One April night handsome wetlands ecologist Dr Charles Perrone throws his wife, Joey, over the stern of the huge cruise liner, the MV Sun Duchess as it steams along the coast of Florida. He’d invited her on a week-long cruise ostensibly to patch up their two-year-old marriage, so it came as a big surprise  to Joey when, after they’d strolled to the stern of the huge cruiser, Chaz said he’d dropped his keys, stooped to pick them up – and the next thing she knew he’d got both her ankles in his hands, and  pitched her up and over the stern rail, falling falling falling.

The initial reason presented to the reader is that Chaz has a new lover, a voluptuous hairdresser named Ricca Jane Spillman (p.201), who he phones as soon as the ship docks. But the key fact of the entire plot is that Joey does not die. She’s a strong swimmer, swam for her school and college, and so instinctively shapes herself into an elegant dive on the way down, enters the water smoothly, regains the surface and sets out swimming strongly towards the distant lights of the Florida coastline.

Still, the ship is a long way from shore in a heavy swell and Joey would have drowned, had she not bumped into a big floating bale of marijuana, presumably jettisoned by some drug smuggler at the approach of coast police. She clings, half clambers aboard this, and passes out…

To regain consciousness safe and sound in a clean bed. A stranger calling himself Mick was out at dawn in his fishing boat, saw a shape bobbing in the water, motored over, realised it was a person clinging to a bale, pulled her aboard, brought her home, stripped and bathed and redressed her and put her to bed, which is where she slowly comes round…

We quickly learn that this rescuer is none other than strong capable Mick Stranahan, who Hiaasen fans will recognise from his 1989 novel Skin Tight. In that novel Mick was an investigator with the State Prosecutor’s office who was forced to take early retirement aged 39 because, while arresting a crooked judge, Raleigh Goomer, the judge drew a gun and shot him and Mick shot the judge dead (p.78). He was exonerated in the resulting case, but a prosecutor who has shot a judge dead isn’t a welcome figure in his profession. Hence the early retirement and a generous state pension. Which he uses to fund the simple life out on a shack built on stilts in the shallow area of Biscayne Bay called Stiltsville (p.50)

Most Hiaasen novels have one standout macabre moment or image and Skin Tight‘s came when a hitman breaks into Mick’s shack looking to kill him. Mick was forewarned, lying in wait, and skewers  the man with the long horn on the front of a marlin he’d caught and whose head he had mounted on his wall. Mick develops into the knight in shining armour in that novel, setting out to get to the bottom of a murder mystery and now, 15 years later, he plays the same role in this book.

When Hurricane Andrew demolished the house on stilts where he used to live, Mick found a replacement, a solidly built holiday home on an isolated coral atoll, owned by a famous Mexican novelist, Miguel Zedillo (p.439) who never goes there but which needs a house-sitter. So here is Mick, aged 53, living alone with a fat old Doberman Pinscher named Strom.

Dogs are an indicator of integrity in Hiaasen. Compare the affectionate black labrador McGuinn which played a central role in Sick Puppy. Dogs and fishing. All the good guys know how to fish or, like strong silent Mick, know not only what rod and lure and bait to use, but how to gut and cook beautiful fish dinners for lovely blonde ladies he’s rescued from drowning

The blade was steady and precise in his large weathered hands. (p.91)

Oooh, the manliness! For the next 476 pages, Mick will be at Joey’s side to protect and serve her as the pair set about trying to discover what on earth motivated slimeball Chaz to toss his wife over the rail. In the end the motive is fairly simple but it takes at least 200 pages for the pair to work it out, by which stage they have conceived a plan: to screw with Chaz’s mind, to blackmail him, freak him out, make him think he’s going mad, to milk as much vengeance from the slimeball as they possibly can.

Characters part 1

The plot is long and, as in all good farces, extravagantly complicated. Here are aspects of it refracted through the main characters:

  • Joey Perrone, née Wheeler. When her parents were killed in a freak plane accident when she was small, she and brother Corbett were brought up by greedy relatives who had their eye on the inheritance. To escape them Corbett fled to the other side of the world and became a sheep farmer in New Zealand (p.86), while Joey tried to escape via various relationships with men, namely a first marriage to the harmless Benjamin Middenbock who was killed when a parachutist landed on him while he was practicing his fly fishing technique in the back garden.
  • Mick Stranahan, 53, lives on an island on the edge of the Atlantic with no landline, satellite dish or computer. Mick has been married six times because every time a woman let him sleep with her he fell hopelessly in love and proposed. Five of them were waitresses. Of course the fact that he was a state prosecutor means that, as he and Joey set out to discover why Chaz tried to murder her, he can call in favours from cops and lawyers within the system, just as he did in Skin Tight – very handy for moving the plot along.
  • Charles Regis Perrone is a handsome lazy selfish bastard. The novel describes how he lucked through a biology degree at university, during which he came to realise he hated nature. He paid for a post-graduate qualification to a correspondence course academy and then was offered a job by a cosmetics company as a ‘biostitute’, a guy with a science qualification who can lie about corporate products. In this case it was cosmetics, Perrone assuring various regulatory bodies that his employer’s products were not in the slightest carcinogenic or damaging (p.67). Chaz is tall, handsome and well groomed so makes a positive impression on any juries he’s called to appear in front of. He is also obsessed with sex. His character revolves around his penis, if he can’t come at least once a day, he feels wretched and the novel spends a disconcerting amount of time devoted to the state of Chaz’s penis, with frequent descriptions of him masturbating to various types of porn (wanking ‘with simian zest’, p.407). It emerges that more or less any time he and Joey went for a car journey, Chaz would put the George Thorogood track ‘Bad To The Bone’ on the CD player and expect Joey to give him a blowjob, getting very cross if she wouldn’t. It is a major comic trope that, after he has murdered his wife and returned to ‘normal’ life, Chaz discovers to his horror that, for the first time in his life, he cannot get an erection, although he tries with long-time mistress Ricca and with an old lover, Medea, a humming reflexologist (p.214). So he buys some bootleg viagra which makes him hard as a rock, but in another crude irony, he can’t feel anything down there. Either way, no joy. Even festooning his bathroom with porn and giving it all he’s got results in nothing. Murdering his wife has made Chaz impotent. Damn!
  • Charles’s mom is a Christian and tried to keep Chaz on the straight and narrow (p.314). She married a retired British RAF officer named Roger.
  • Detective Karl Rolvaag is sent to meet the supposedly distraught husband Chaz off the boat when it docks and immediately knows something is wrong from Chaz’s nervous replies. Karl is from Minneapolis, he moved to Florida because his wife was sick of the cold, but they got divorced and now Karl is sick of the sickos and slimeballs he has to deal with every day. So throughout the novel we see him drafting then handing in his notice to his boss, Captain Gallo. Karl is made considerably more interesting by the fact that he keeps two enormous pet pythons which eat the rats he brings home to them from a pet shop in a shoebox. His elderly neighbours in the Sawgrass Grove Condominium (p.236), who all keep horrible little chihuahuas and poodles,  for example, weedy, whiny Mrs Shulman (p.104) have got wind of this and are campaigning to have him evicted.
  • Captain Gallo, Karl’s boss has several girlfriends on the go at any one time and so is inclined to overlook adultery and infidelity as motives for serious crimes.

The key to the plot

Mick and Joey just don’t understand why Chaz killed her. If he’d gone off her, why not the traditional American route of divorce? About page 200 we discover what the whole thing is about. To adapt a phrase, and as so often in Hiaasen, ‘it’s the environment, stupid’.

They discover that Chaz had been hired by Red Hammernut, CEO of an enormous agribusiness. Besides working illegal immigrant labour for slave wages. Hammernut’s businesses are sluicing off hundreds of thousands of gallons of waste water, highly polluted with fertiliser and pesticides, into the Everglades National Park. Chemical levels in the water are monitored by the state. When Chaz bullshits his way into a meeting with Hammernut, he quickly persuades the boss man that he (Chaz) is precisely the kind of slick, well-presented, amoral, lying shitbucket that Hammernut needs to fake his water runoff figures (pages 173, 285, 342).

So Hammernut pays for Chaz to do a post-graduate degree in wetland management and then arranges, through well-targeted bribery, to have him placed on the state water monitoring agency, where Chaz starts to slowly massage the figures down, until the waste runoff levels are so low that Hammernut (with heavy irony) wins an environmental award.

Chaz’s superior at the Florida State water survey agency is Marta, who puts in a few random appearances, scaring Chaz that she might be going to do her own analyses of the samples, and that he will be unmasked as a paid fraud (p.230) although, in the end, it’s not that which brings him down.

Hammernut pays Chaz bribe money, buys him a big Humvee, and promises him a bright future as a corporate shill in a few years’ time, if he plays his cards right.

Where does Joey come into all this? Well, Chaz never told her a thing about his job, dropping only vague generalisations about working for state water. One day she was scheduled to fly out of the state to visit friends, but it was raining when she got to the airport and, being superstitious about flying, she turned round and drove home and… discovered Chaz with his fake water reading charts tacked up all over the living room.

Chaz was furious and sent her out the room and accused her of spying on him. She of course had no idea what he was talking about, and quickly forgot the silly row, but Chaz didn’t. It eats away at him and eventually he becomes convinced that Joey knows and is just waiting for the next time she catches him messaging a mistress, before she goes to the cops and spills the beans, leading to Chaz and Hammernut going to gaol, the end of his career, the end of his future.

That is the state of mind in which Chaz decided that the only solution to the Joey problem wasn’t a mere divorce, but to do away with Joey altogether (the thought process described on page 277).

The main plot development – blackmailing Chaz

Mick and Joey agree they will not inform the authorities that Joey is alive i.e. they will let the coastguard and the cops, specifically Karl Rolvaag, continue to believe she’s dead. In particular they will very much let Chaz believe he succeeded in murdering Joey. BUT they quickly conceive the idea of screwing with his head in as many ways as they can conceive. For example, a few days after she was pushed overboard, and she has recovered from exposure and sea burn, Joey returns to her family house when Chaz is out and is disgusted to discover that he has already cleared out all her dresses and clothes and make-up. He’s even let the ornamental fish in the aquarium die.

So Joey has fun by a) choosing just one dress from the boxes of them Chaz has stashed in the garage and hanging it prominently in the otherwise empty closet; and finding an old photo of them as a happy couple, cutting out her own face, and slipping the photo under his pillows.

But they don’t stop there, and the second half of the novel is driven by Joey and Mick’s idea of creating a hoax blackmailer who they claim witnessed Chaz pushing Joey over the rail. Mick makes phone calls to Chaz at all times of day and night, pretending to have witnessed the murder on the ship, threatening him with exposure to the cops. They even go so far as to create a mock-up video of the fatal event, shot at night, from a distance, in which Mick uses a wig to double for Chaz, and they do it on a deck with a lifeboat immediately beneath which Joey can tumble safely into.

Mick also calls in a favour from his brother in law, Kipper Garth, who we last saw getting dinged in the head with a jai alai puck by a jealous husband in the earlier novel. Now he specialises in TV adverts for accident litigation, motoring around in his wheelchair to drum up sympathy. Mick bullies Garth into signing a fake will for Joey, in which she claims to have made over her entire fortune (which is, we are told, worth some $14 million) to Chaz (p.196).

As we’ve seen, getting his hands on Joey’s inheritance was not the direct motive for Chaz tossing Joey overboard, but when Mick hands this fake will to Detective Rogvaal it instantly provides the exact kind of motivation for the crime which the detective had been looking for.

This campaign of persecution drives Chaz into increasing hysteria, and to make all kinds of terrible errors of judgement. In a comic scene a feverishly over-wrought Chaz accuses stolid Norwegian detective Rolvaag of being the blackmailer (by this time, half way through the book, Rolvaag is convinced Chaz murdered his wife but has no evidence to go on and, of course, doesn’t know she’s alive).

In a comic move, when Mick checks in for a haircut with Chaz’s lover Ricca, and slowly reveals to her not that Joey fell overboard accidentally (as Chaz had told her) but that Chaz murdered his wife. When, later that evening, Ricca, in shock, confronts Chaz with this accusation, he drives her out to the remote perimeter of the Everglades and tries to shoot her dead (although he’s so useless with guns that he  only wings her and she is able to limp off at speed through the swamp before Chaz can finish her off) (chapter 21).

Characters part 2

Samuel Johnson ‘Red’ Hammernut (p.244) is a crooked farm tycoon who owns large vegetable fields in Hendry County, north of the Florida Everglades, which he relentlessly pollutes with fertiliser run-off. He bankrolls Chaz through a PhD in wetland ecology, gets him a job on the state water agency, and secretly pays him to fake the results. Red is a stumpy, red-faced man, ‘a goblin’, a shrewd operator who takes no nonsense. He has made big financial contributions to both US political parties, as evidenced by the signed photos of presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton in his office, and in return he calls in favours and uses political influence to evade state supervision of the slave labour conditions he keeps his immigrant workers in.

On page 120 we are introduced to Tool (real name Earl Edward O’Toole (p.241) an enormous, educationally sub-normal mountain of a man who is Hammernut’s fixer or goon. Each Hiaasen novel generally features one grotesque lowlife and Tool plays this role in this novel. Tool’s body hair is so thick and matted that he goes round topless and everyone thinks he’s wearing a pullover. Tool was shot some time ago by a poacher who mistook him for a bear and the bullet lodged in his coccyx where it gives him continual pain. Thus his bizarre habit, which is sneaking into old people’s homes or hospices and stealing painkiller patches off sleeping old people (e.g. p.183).

His second bizarre habit is stopping whatever he’s driving whenever he sees one of those commemorative crosses by the side of the road where someone has had an accident, digging it up and taking it back to his trailer, outside Labelle, not far from Lake Okeechobee. Here, behind his trailer, he has a well-tended field full of 70 or so white crosses (p.121).

Tool has already proved his use kicking, punching and slave-driving ‘beanies’ i.e. illegal immigrants, on Hammernut’s huge agricultural holdings. Hammernut has now recruited him to run special errands, often involving hurting or killing anyone who stands in Hammernut’s way.

So when Chaz informs Hammernut that someone is trying to blackmail him and this has the potential to blow their water-tampering operation wide open, Hammernut sends Tool to watch over Chaz, at first in a car parked opposite his house – until Tool freaks out some of the neighbours, at which point he is ordered to move into Chaz’s spare room. At which point begins an extremely tortuous love-hate relationship between the pair which features frequent fights, casual beatings and, at the climax of the novel, a murderous shootout.

Rose Jewell is a friend of Joey’s from her book club (p.141). Mick and Joey let her in on the secret that Joey is still alive and get her to seduce Chaz, inviting him round to her place, where she slips out and lets Joey slip into bed in her place, thus allowing Joey, when she starts talking, to deliver Chaz the fright of his life!

Maureen. When Tool walks into the Elysian Manor hospice he checks out all the rooms looking for sleeping old people whose painkiller patches he can steal, and sneaks up to one particularly frail looking old lady lying on her side, but… the old lady turns and whacks him! Surprised, Tool reproaches her, she tells him her name is Maureen, she is 81 (p.258), asks him to draw up a chair, and they get chatting. And over the rest of the book, Tool returns several times to chat to Maureen, and she listens and gives support, tells him not to cuss, to wash his mouth out and, crucially, that it’s never too late to reform.

And by the book’s end Tool does indeed become a reformed character. So much so that the Big Gruesome Scene which tends to feature in every Hiaasen novel comes when Tool’s conscience tells him to turn on  his boss. Hammernut has repeatedly insulted and abused Tool for screwing up his tasks, the final one of which is to take Chaz out to a remote part of the Everglades and shoot him (which Tool, mindful of Maureen’s moral advice, decides not to do). Having refused to do that (and let Chaz escape off through the swamps) Hammernut totally loses his temper when Tool stops the truck to get out and dig up one of his damn roadside crosses. But it’s the final straw for Tool, too, who finally snaps, seizes the big wooden stake out of the ground, raises it above his head and slams it down, driving the stake through Hammernut’s rotten heart (p.449). There. Gruesome enough for you?

Skink

Skink, the demented eco-vigilante who has appeared in most of the previous novels, appears here, too! He makes two big appearances. First, when he hears gunshots and comes to the rescue of Ricca after Chaz has driven her deep into the outback and tried and failed to shoot her dead. Skink rescues and looks after her, cleans the wound and delivers her safely to a highway (p.327 ff.).

Second time, right at the end of the novel, where Hammernut and Tool drive Chaz out to the same kind of outback location and Hammernut orders Tool to execute Chaz with a shotgun but Tool, a changed man due to Maureen’s moral lessons, deliberately misses. It’s on the drive back that a furious Hammernut finally goads Tool so hard that the big man transfixes him with a stake (p.449).

But a terrified Chaz has meanwhile made off into the muddy swamp and that is where he encounters Skink (p.471) who quickly realises this is the very same sleazebag who tried to shoot Ricca. Punishment will be according to the crime and the novel ends with the heavy threat that Chaz’s life is about to become very unpleasant indeed…

Environmentalism

Hiaasen gives serious journalistic accounts of the history of the pollution and degradation of the vast Everglades on pages 127 and 449 which are very depressing. We learn that the Everglades are being destroyed at the rate of about 2 acres per day.

Omnicompetent narrator

Once again I was dazzled by the narrator’s total knowledge. I think one of the unstated appeals of Hiaasen’s novels is that the narrator knows everything about everything. Nothing is in doubt, nothing is uncertain. Every article in the world has a name, every manmade product has a brand name and a measurement and a year of production and the narrator can name it and assess its state. Every animal is known and named, every action has a name. Everything is stated plainly because there is no ambiguity or grey areas. Language is a tool of precision knowledge.

This was crystallised for me by the following paragraphs which aren’t particularly important to the plot, but demonstrate what I mean.

Hank and Lana Wheeler lived in Elko, Nevada, where they owned a prosperous casino resort that featured a Russian dancing-bear act. The bears were raised and trained by a semi-retired dominatrix who billed herself as Ursa Major. (p.30)

Now at first glance this is the comedy of the amusingly bizarre. The mere idea that a casino has dancing bears is colourful and the bear tamer’s name is a nifty joke. But what really got me was the way everything about the situation is completely known. The narrator knows exactly what the couple are named, where they live, what they do, and give us the most colourful salient detail of their profession. I’ve got real life friends who I’ve known for decades and I don’t really know what their jobs are but there’s none of that real-world uncertainty or ambiguity about anything in Hiaasen. Every single aspect of the story, every character, has a bright spotlight shone on them and every salient fact about them is reported in crisp, factual sentences. He continues the passage in the same vein:

Over time the Wheelers had become fond of Ursa and treated her as kin. When one of her star performers, a 425-pound neutered Asiatic named Boris, developed an impacted bicuspid, the Wheelers chartered a Gulfstream jet to transport the animal to a renowned periodontic veterinarian at Lake Tahoe. Hank and Lana went along for moral support, and also to sneak in some spring skiing.

That’s a dazzling paragraph. For a start I’m impressed by the way the narrator and all the characters in this book immediately know each other’s weights to the exact pound. Karl knows Mrs Shulman weighs 90 pounds (p.104). Joey knows she weighs 131 pounds (p.141). It’s a supernatural gift which crops up in all American thrillers, this wonderful weight knowledge, which I’ve never encountered any real person possessing.

Next the bear doesn’t get sick or become poorly, no: it develops ‘an impacted bicuspid’. Do you know what that is? Me neither. See what I mean about laser-like precision with facts.

Next I am dazzled that the couple can charter a private jet. Obviously I’ve never chartered a private jet and I don’t know anyone who has. I will go to my grave well outside this level of affluence and confidence. Just as obviously Hiaasen names the make of jet for the simple rule that no product must go unnamed.

And then they take the bear to a ‘periodontic’ vet. Do you know what a periodontic vet is? Me neither. I’ve got a vet down the road for my cat, but I just call her ‘the vet’. What is periodontism? Everything in the narrative, everything, functions at a level of knowledge and expertise waaaay above any level I’ve ever encountered.

Which is capped off by the way the couple take advantage of their little trip to get in some spring skiing. Wow. What a life! I live in London and if you go skiing, it means you’re going to the Alps in the winter season, to meet up with thousands of other braying bankers.

Taken together, these two paragraphs exemplified, for me, the way the entire narrative acts with a level of effortless expertise and calmly accepted wealth that I find breath-taking.

So my point is that, the hilariously complicated plot and the usual 20 or so comically slimebucket Hiaasen characters dominate the reading experience so much that it’s easy to forget that the novel itself, on every page, showcases a level of wealth and glamorous lifestyle, superbly confident in the ability to hire private jets and rental cars and speedboats and go on shopping sprees and buy new shoes, new fishing gear, new SUVs, describes a dazzling lifestyle unattainable for any of us living in boring third world England. The plot may be pure escapism, but so is the entire world it describes.

Abbreviating the language

I noticed in the previous Hiaasen novels, and began to actively mark up in this one, examples of a distinctive linguistic development which I don’t think I’ve seen before, or not so widely used.

As part of the narrator’s omnicompetence, he not only knows the names for everything and the words for every possible human action, but he has a habit of abbreviating words to make them short, one-syllable, effective tools – shorter, snappier, cooler. Examples will show what I mean:

  • when the sailing of the cruise ship is delayed because a frothing raccoon gets loose, ‘a capture team’ from the local animal control bureau is sent in
  • ‘the grave-spoken newscaster’ – surely ‘gravely-spoken’
  • ‘the dirt roads were tearing up the shocks on his midsize Chevy’ (p.108) we would say ‘shock absorbers’
  • ‘Flamingo was a fish camp…’ – surely fishing camp (p.253)
  • ‘four years on the college swim team’ (p.321) swimming
  • ‘the man devoured everything else in the fry pan’ (p.328) frying
  • ‘wearing a knit watch cap’ (p.332) knitted
  • ‘so they could rest on the dive platform’ (p.440) diving

It’s as if Americans are just in so much of a hurry to take their opioids or destroy their environment or shoot some more black men that they don’t have time to say goddam long words. Keep it short. Fish camp, swim school, tote bag. Why waste unnecessary breath on all those goddam long words?

When…

A comedy formula has cropped up enough times in the past few novels, to make the reader suspect Hiaasen is playing a game with himself or a friend. The idea is to generate comedy variations on the thought ‘when hell freezes over’ using unlikely animals. Thus, in this novel, something unlikely will happen:

  • when goats learn ballet (p.134)
  • if fish had tits (p.334)
  • maybe someday crows will play lacrosse (p.350)

Credit

Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen was published by Bantam Press in 2004. All references are to the 2005 Black Swan paperback edition.

Carl Hiaasen reviews

  1. Tourist Season (1986)
  2. Double Whammy (1987)
  3. Skin Tight (1989)
  4. Native Tongue (1991)
  5. Strip Tease (1993)
  6. Stormy Weather (1995)
  7. Lucky You (1997)
  8. Sick Puppy (2000)
  9. Basket Case (2002)
  10. Skinny Dip (2004)
  11. Nature Girl (2006)
  12. Star Island (2010)
  13. Bad Monkey (2013)
  14. Razor Girl (2016)
  15. Squeeze Me (2020)

Basket Case by Carl Hiaasen (2002)

The pros and cons of a first person narrator

Well, this is an oddity, a Carl Hiaasen novel told in the first person. His previous eight comedy crime novels were all told in the voice of a gung-ho, whip-smart, third-person narrator. This one is a departure and an experiment and I didn’t like it nearly as much.

At a stroke it makes you realise a big part of the appeal of Hiaasen’s novels is their relatively large cast of the characters, all engaged on half a dozen different storylines, and a lot of the fun and dynamic comes from the way a third-person narrator can cut at will from one scene and storyline to another. This has two obvious results: 1. it means there’s constant change and variety, giving the reader a sense of dynamism and energy; and 2. it means the scenes he cuts to can be at their best and juiciest moments; the less interesting lead-up to them, or aftermath of them, can be dealt with by an overarching narrator with a few sentences of explanation.

By contrast 1. it’s quite surprising to realise just how boring it is to be trapped in the consciousness of one first-person narrator. Instead of flitting from scene and encountering all manner of outrageous characters and improbable events, you are confined to just the one person’s point of view. 2. Being stuck with one person means that, almost by definition, only so much can plausibly happen.

Not only do you quickly get fed up of that person’s voice and restless at being confined to just the one point of view, but, in terms of ‘events’, a lot less happen in a first-person narrative, because the person you’re following only has so many hours in the day, can only be in one place at a time, can only be drinking in one bar, chatting to a girl in his flat, driving his car or sitting at work, at any one moment. Whereas an omniscient narrator can describe half a dozen characters all doing completely different things at any given point in time.

Therefore an author who chooses to tell their story from a first-person narrator’s point of view has to work quite hard to overcome these built-in obstacles – especially if, like Hiaasen, their previous novels have been spectacularly effective examples of how to create multi-character, multi-scene narratives.

Thinking about it, a first-person narrative must compensate for the loss of narrative breadth with an increase of narrative depth. In other words, a first-person narrative needs more psychological interest: if you’re going to be stuck inside one person’s head for 400 pages, it better be a pretty interesting head.

Hiaasen works hard at it but the way he does so graphically exposes his weakness as a writer, because he doesn’t really do psychological depth; what he tends to do instead is psychological quirks and kinks, and that’s precisely what is on florid display here.

Hiaasen gives his narrator a number of quirks and hangups and obsessions (see below) which are very entertaining, but they are no replacement for the greater depth of psychological complexity the reader is used to from first person accounts.

And he makes another big formal decision which is to write the whole thing in the present tense, an obvious bid to give the narrative more immediacy, and yet… as a result of this one central decision (to be a first-person narrative) Basket Case lacks the panoramic vistas, the range of background fact, the variety of incident and the fast pace of his other novels.

That said, it’s still a Carl Hiaasen novel, he writes his usual super-snappy description and dialogue, and his story features the usual variety of scumbags and amoral users, with a host of other characters, large and small and consistently diverting. So it’s still a gripping, easy and very entertaining read. He is a very skillful writer, an arranger of complex plots, an inventor of all manner of interesting characters, a writer of snappy descriptions and pithy dialogue. It’s a very good book. Just not as good as the others.

Jack Tagger

Jack Tagger Junior is a journalist (p.20). He works for the Union-Register newspaper. He’s 46 (p.39) and will turn 47 in a week (p.200). He’s worked for a number of papers in his time, and came to the Union-Register to work on the news desk. But then the Union-Register was sold by its owner, Macarthur Polk, to the Maggad-Feist Publishing Group for $47 million (p.69), and in the press conference to announce the deal, Tagger was foolish enough to insult the new CEO, smooth yuppie Race Maggad III (‘a money-grubbing yupster twit,’ p.214), on the record, in front of numerous TV cameras (p.70).

He didn’t get fired, Maggad was too canny of public relations to cause a fuss. Instead Jack was relegated to the obituary department, stripped of all investigative powers and reduced to churning out an obituary a day, under the watchful eye of the relatively inexperienced editor, Emma Cole (p.235), aged just 27, who he despises for her callow youth. (It is, as soon as you process this, almost inevitable that they end up having an affair.)

One of the quirks Hiaasen gives Tagger is that he is obsessed with the ages the famous have died at. Whoever he meets, he asks their age and instantly knows the names of the great and the good who died at that age: Bob Marley and F. Scott Fitzgerald (dead aged 44), Franz Kafka and Edgar Allen Poe (40) and, from his own age group, George Orwell, John F. Kennedy and Oscar Wilde, all died aged 46 (p.222).

Over and above this oddity, Hiaasen gives Jack a neurosis about the age his birth father died at, which he doesn’t know because his dad walked out on him and his mum when he was 3. Jack endlessly bugs his mom to know what age his dad died (p.88) and his stepfather died (p.151). He has a morbid obsession that he’s fated to die at the same age.

When you write this obsession out in black and white you can see how contrived it is, but it is made into a massive part of Jack’s character. His ex, Anne Candilla, says part of the reason she left him was because of his endless monologues about age, because of his uneasy the dreams, the midnight monologues, the actuarial charts of people’s life expectancies taped to the fridge (p.223).

Jack has a recurring nightmare of his dad turning up looking like he did in an old photo and the exact same age as Jack now, and then Jack sees himself chasing his dad across a golf course, tackling him to the ground and his dad suddenly being dead and rotting before his eyes. This recurring dream which used to wake him up sweating next to ex-girlfriend Anne, is described on pages 348 to 349.

Jack is not, in other words, a bland and neutral narrator, he is quite a fruit loop himself.

I’m not the most reliable authority on who’s normal and who’s well adjusted. (p.244)

The obsession with the dead helps explain why the last woman he slept with was Karen Penski, mainly because she has a job in the local morgue and overflows with details and anecdotes about the dead, in which Tagger is morbidly interested.

The mysterious death of James Bradley Stomarti

Unlike its lead character, the setup of the novel is fairly straightforward. One day Tagger is commissioned to write the obituary of James Bradley Stomarti, who found fame as the songwriter and singer with the ‘legendary’ rock group ‘Jimmy Stoma and the Slut Puppies’.

Stomarti has just drowned on a scuba dive in the Bahamas, so Tagger digs up the address of his widow, ‘Cleo Rio‘, phones to make an interview, drives over to her condo to interview her, she cries, gives a description of the tragic dive (she was sunning herself on the boat, Jimmy went down with his best friend and band keyboardist, Jay Burns, the pair got separated, Jimmy must have gotten confused and his air run out). And Cleo is the main source of the quotes Tagger then uses for the long, competent obituary which he then writes and is published next day in his newspaper, the Union-Register.

But slowly details crop up which indicate all is not as simple as it seems. The dead man’s sister, Janet Thrush, laughs down the phone when he describes his trip to Cleo, as if the whole thing was a setup. Some backing singers he meets when he attends Stomarti’s funeral tell him Jimmy was working on an album when he died, directly contradicting his widow’s claim that he had severed all ties with the music industry (p.75). A few days later national papers publish obituaries of the singer and the description Cleo gives of the fatal dive are significantly different from what she told Tagger.

The sister, Janet, invites Tagger out to the crematorium to look at Jimmy’s embalmed body ahead of the  funeral service and they take the opportunity to unbutton his shirt and discover to their surprise that the body bears no marks of an autopsy (p.46). Why not?

So, it is a murder mystery, with the first-person narrator stumbling into a situation which is much more complex and shady than it first appears and uncovering various dirty secrets. In other words, it is one of Raymond Chandler’s countless descendants.

In the course of his investigations Tagger meets:

  • Janet Thrush (p.40), Stomarti’s sister who makes a living dressing up in sexy outfits on webcam and slowly stripping while male customers pay (p.82)
  • Cynthia Jane, 23, Stomarti’s wife who goes by the stage name of Cleo Rio (backstory p.123) and outrages everyone who attends the funeral by taking the opportunity to strum an acoustic guitar and sing her latest single, very badly (p.76). Tagger quickly realises she is having an affair with a tall, handsome guy who uses a strong cologne, who he later finds out is a record producer named Loréal
  • Jerry, Cleo Rio’s tough skinhead minder
  • Emma Cole, 27, Jack’s editor at the Union-Register, who he resents for being young, inexperienced and not a good writer, who he has some ill-defined mission to ‘rescue’ from the newspaper business (pages 214, 304), but who he, rather inevitably, ends up sleeping with
  • the paper’s tough managing editor, Abkazion
  • Juan, Jack’s best friend at the Union-Register, a sports journalist who tried to prevent Jack getting demoted from the investigative team, who now jokily calls him ‘Obituary boy’ and regularly drops round to Jack’s fourth floor apartment after work for beer and TV. Juan has his own florid backstory in that he and his family escaped from Cuba along with thirty others on a shrimp boat; when some criminals on the boat took his older sister aside to rape her, Juan stabbed two of them to death, something which still gives him bad dreams (p.255)
  • Anne Candilla, Jack’s most recent girlfriend who dumped him leaving him really, really upset about her
  • Carla Candilla (p.153) grown-up daughter of Anne who works in a photo shop where she makes illegal copies of any sexy photos the customers have included in their rolls, and adds them to a portfolio. Carla likes Jack and enjoys shocking him with her sexual candour and colourful language about blowjobs and tongue studs and bondage (‘Who’s polishing your knob, Jack?’), and so is a useful contact with yoof culture, which is important in a novel which is about a rock star and his would-be rock star wife
  • Jack regularly talks to his mom on the phone. She is now married to Dave, an out and out racist who goes ballistic when a black man is proposed for membership of his golf club (p.258)
  • Macarthur Polk, son of the founder of the Union-Register, who sold it to a big corporation, thus earning the enmity of the paper’s staff. Emma assigns Tagger to go and interview the old man (aged 88) who is wasting away in hospital, preparatory for writing his obituary, but Jack and the ornery old dude ended up getting along pretty well, and they end up making a Big Deal, see below (chapter 11)
  • Jay Burns, keyboard player with the Slut Puppies, the last man to see Jimmy alive, who Tagger approaches at the funeral and agrees to do an interview. But when Tagger looks him up on Jimmy’s old yacht, the Rio Rio, a very stoned and drunk Burns unaccountably attacks him and they have a real fight, whacking each other in the face, until Tagger more or less comes out on top, and the pair stagger up on deck to get some air (chapter 12). Burns’s body later turns up, he’s been murdered and the cops, as in all these American noir-style thrillers, initially think Tagger had something to do with it

As you might expect, sooner or later someone breaks into Jack’s apartment, that always happens in novels, movies, TV programmes like this. He and the masked intruder have an epic fight, rolling round on the floor till Jack grabs the three-foot iguana lizard he keeps in his freezer and so is hard as a rock  (obviously, this has its own little backstory) and whacks the (masked) burglar with it, who staggers to his feet and runs off, but not before swiping Tagger’s laptop.

The fight means that Jack appears throughout the rest of the narrative with a ripe collection of cuts and bruises on his face and legs. The narrators of all thrillers since Raymond Chandler are required to be beaten up and appear next morning to their womenfolk who gasp, ‘Jack, you look awful! What happened?’ which is the hero’s cue to play the whole thing down in a bluff, manly way. ‘Shucks, honey, just guy stuff, you wouldn’t understand.’ All these clichés of the genre are present and correct in this novel.

Hiaasen knows he’s channeling Raymond Chandler (just like William Gibson knows he’s channeling James Bond in his novels) so much so that even the characters realise they’re in a Chandler novel. At one point Jack’s friend, Juan, tells him to ‘quit playing [Philip] Marlow’ (p.199) i.e. Raymond Chandler’s famous private eye.

This plot synopsis takes us up to a little over a third the way through this 30-chapter, 400-page-long book. As you can imagine, there continues to be a steady drip-drip of clues throughout the book, but there are also two big recurring themes.

The newspaper business

One is a number of descriptions of the offices of a modern newspaper, at various hours of day and night and over the weekend, about the hard realities of modern newspapers, how they are being gutted by corporate owners more interested in advertising revenue than journalism, and yet what an important social function journalism performs (pages 186, 267, 300, 328, 410, 416).

Obviously these atmospheric descriptions are based on Hiaasen’s own first-hand experience as an award-winning journalist and they are interesting bits of social history or sociological observation in their own right. But they are also an important part of the storyline about the newspaper’s owner handing Tagger a controlling interest in its future (see below). Out of this storyline spin numerous thoughts and reflections about the role and current state of newspaper journalism (as of 2002).

The big snore: rock music in 50-something men’s fiction

The second theme is rock music, not surprisingly as the suspected murder victim is a rock musician.

As anyone who’s read my reviews of William Gibson knows, I went right off his novels as they became increasingly obsessed with crappy-sounding fictional rock bands and the worlds of contemporary fashion and advertising. The older Gibson got, the more he got addicted to making references to Jimi Hendrix and the Doors, managing to turn himself from a really cool pioneer of cyberpunk into an old dad droning on about the Doors and the Rolling Stones.

Well, same here. Hiaasen was turning 50 as this book was published and it displays all the symptoms of Dad Rock. His hero, Jack, still adulates the Rolling Stones as if it’s 1972 not 2002. He admires the district attorney because he’s got a photo of the Stones on his wall signed by Keith Richards (p.310). He has an argument with a woman he’s just stripped to have sex with because he wants to hear the Stones track ‘Ventilator Blues’ off Exile on Main Street (1972) while they have sex and she really doesn’t want to (p.251).

I put a Stones record on the stereo because you can’t go wrong with the Stones. (p.63)

Oh yes you can. By the 1980s and certainly by the 1990s the Rolling Stones were the soundtrack of choice for bankers and oligarchs, driving round in their Porsches, twanging their red braces, blagging $1,000 a seat corporate boxes at stadium concerts, and somehow managing to persuade themselves they were still ‘street fighting men’.

On page 74, when Hiaasen starts describing the different members of his fictional band, the Slut Puppies. When he came to ‘the band’s notoriously moody lead guitarist, Peter P. Proust’, who was stabbed to death a few years earlier, it felt almost identical to the half dozen times I read in William Gibson’s tediously flashy, corporate ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, about the ‘legendary’ rock band The Curfew (which features in all three of those novels) whose ‘legendary’ bassist, Jimmy Carlyle, died of a fatal heroin overdose.

The way these fictional bands consist of the super-traditional fourpiece, and the way one of these four has died an untimely end, is identical in both novels. And both writers were writing about traditional four-piece rock bands in the 2000s, as if rap, rave, drum and bass, hip hop, techno, trance, garage and grunge and grime had never happened. These are the kind of people who iron their jeans, fret about their pensions… but still think they are in some way ‘streetfighting men’.

It’s in this rather tiresome spirit that the title of the book, Basket Case, is itself one of the ‘tracks’ of Jimmy and the Slut Puppies’ hit album, Floating Hospice (p.347).

Music references litter to the book, including mention of Little Richard, Billy Preston, Led Zeppelin and Bob Seger (p.207), James Taylor (p.261), Derek and the Dominoes (p.345), Neil Young (p.380) and Paul McCartney (p.391). Jack’s laptop (which gets stolen) has a Grateful Dead decal on it (p.271), Jack gives his district attorney contact tickets to a Bruce Springsteen gig (p.311).

You could argue that these are all the interests of a fictional character. a) Same difference. Still feels very Dad Rock (or, by now, in 2021, Grandad Rock). b) all Hiaasen’s other heroes have the same taste, popping a Neil Young of Creedance Clearwater Revival song on their record decks as if the past 50 years of music never happened.

The rest of the plot (spoilers)

Jack follows the man he saw at Cleo Rio’s apartment to a nightclub (named Jizz; Hiaasen likes taking the mickey out of nightclubs; the one in Sick Puppy is named Pubes).

Jack approaches him as a journalist and gets his name, Loréal, and the fact that he’s a record producer, claiming to be producing Cleo’s album although, when Jack does some research, he discovers he’s never produced an album in his life.

After being beaten up by the guy who broke into his apartment, Jack makes it round to Emma’s apartment and she puts him up on the sofa, applies ice to his cuts and bruises and, to both their surprise, gives him a soft kiss goodnight. Ah. Shagging on the horizon.

He and Emma then learn that Guy Burns, who he had the fight on the boat with, has been found dead, apparently so drugged up that he laid down behind a garbage truck which promptly rolled over his head. Hmm. It’s possible, but Emma and Jack think it sounds suspicious.

Next day, Jack calls in on young gutter-mouthed Carla and is gutted to hear that her mother (his former lover, Anne) is about to marry a British spy novelist named Derek Grenoble. (Is this some obscure joke about John le Carré? Is it a sly reference to the fact that le Carré’s most famous character, Smiley, is separated from a wife named Anne, for whom he still carries a torch?)

Back in the newspaper office, Tagger has an aggressive confrontation with Race Maggad III, reprising the argument which got him relegated to the obituaries desk.

Jack takes Emma to the Rio Rio boat, now sealed off by police tape following Guy Burns’s death, but they climbed through that and gave the boat a thorough search. Hidden in the fake bottom of an oxygen diving cylinder they discover a portable hard drive. So we all now come round to suspecting that the burglars are after the hard drive.

What is on the hard drive?

My guess is it’s the tapes of James Stomarti’s final album and his ‘wife’, Cleo Rio a) had him bumped off and b) now wants the tapes and has hired goons to get hold of them. Her motive is simple: to dub her voice over Jimmy’s tapes and claim they’re all hers and be a big star and make lots of money. That’s my theory as of half way through the book.

When Tagger takes Emma to meet Janet Thrush he is upset to discover her front door has been forced open and the studio room where she strips for pervey webcammers has been completely trashed. She is nowhere to be seen and there’s a pool of dried blood on the front carpet. They call 911 then leave quickly, but both are traumatised.

Tagger meets with Polk’s lawyer, Charles Chickle (p.229) who confirms what Polk told him in the hospital, namely that he hates Race Maggad III even worse than Tagger does and, having heard that Tagger publicly insulted him, has decided to make Tagger administrator of the shares he still owns in the Register’s parent company. Tagger’s sole job will be not to sell them to Maggad but to stymie everything the Maggad-run board proposes, and to generally piss Maggad off for the rest of his life. For this task, he will be paid $100,000 a year. Tagger is amazed at the offer.

Juan takes Tagger to meet a young 12-year-old black kid computer whizzkid named Dominic Dominguez who opens up the hard drive and, lo and behold, it is music, it’s a whole load of studio recordings, each instrument with a separate track, some of them final mixes, some still being assembled (chapter 12).

Emma Cole drops by with her toothbrush. She’s decided she wants sex. What a woman wants, a woman gets. So they have sex. In fact they have sex three times through the course of the evening and early hours. Life is great in novels. They are now an investigative team and an item.

Next thing we know Jack’n’Emma learn that the Slut Puppies bassist, Tito Negraponte has been shot, though not fatally, at his Los Angeles home.

‘Somebody’s killing off the Slut Puppies!’ (p.281)

Emma gets funds for Jack to fly to Los Angeles to interview Tito in his hospital bed, tells him everything he knows, and in return Tito, stoned on painkillers, confirms Jack’s hunch that it’s Cleo behind everything. She wants one particular track off the album, Shipwrecked Heart, which she’s going to put her vocals on and issue as a single. And she needs to get the master tapes a) to learn the song b) to remix it c) to make sure no-one else has it or can release it to prove she’s ripping off her dead husband.

That, in a nutshell, is the motor for the plot.

Jack breaks back into Janet’s house and cuts a swatch from the blood-stained carpet and swipes a used tampax from the bin, takes them to a forensics guy who owes him a favour and who rings back a few days later with the result. Yes, the blood on the carpet matches the blood on the tampon. It’s Janet’s blood. Jack is crushed. He didn’t have any designs on her but he really liked her. Now looks like she’s been murdered.

But then someone calls the cops on a bad line claiming to be Janet and that the wreckage was caused by an ex-boyfriend who went postal. Jack fears it’s a fake call and the reader is left to stew for 30 or 40 pages, fearing, like Jack, that nice Janet has been wasted.

And this causes deliberate confusion when Jerry, Cleo Rio’s hitman, phones up and tells Jack they’ve got her and want to do an exchange, to exchange her for the hard drive. Jack’s obsession with Janet means it takes stupid Jack a score of pages to realise that who ‘they’ have kidnapped is not Janet but Emma!!

Meanwhile Janet has not been murdered. Turns out she had rung and left messages on Jack’s answer-machine a couple of times stating that it was her who called the cops and the story is true: a jealous boyfriend really did trash her place and hit her. She ran off and is staying with friends in the south, bit bruised but basically OK. But Jack didn’t pick up these answerphone messages till a lot later.

Meanwhile – the bad guys have got Emma and they contact Jack with the details of how to get her back.

He is told to take a call at a payphone at the end of a pier by the sea (where Jack gets chatting to a 92-year-old who’s out there fishing and explains his strategy for avoiding death!).

The pier-end call tells him to go that evening to the nightclub named ‘Jizz’ (which keeps being the setting for meetings throughout the novel).

Here Jack meets with Cleo, Jerry and Loréal, is typically aggressive and insulting, is slapped upside his head a few times, but makes every effort to a) make it clear Janet knows nothing and is not a danger to the bad guys, b) emphasise that quite a few people know the truth including Tito, the backing singers and so on, and will put pieces together if he goes missing. So they oughtn’t to bump him off.

But he promises to bring the hard drive wherever they want and they part.

That night Jack can’t sleep, stays up all night tinkering with an old guitar he played in college, drags his ass to work the next day. The bad guys eventually call and give Jack a long set of instructions for hiring a boat, a GPS system and meeting them smack bang in the middle of the huge Lake Okeechobee.

Juan calls by his desk and Jack tells him the terrible news (Emma has been kidnapped by the guys he’s been investigating; he’s got to hand over the hard drive in exchange for her; he’s been told to do so in the middle of Lake Okeechobee) so Juan says he’ll come along and help out.

Then there’s a kicker. Just as he’s about to  leave, the Managing Editor of the paper, Abkazion, comes up to him, tells him old man Polk just passed away this morning. Magad wants Jack to write the obituary, Polk wanted Jack to write the obituary, Abkazion now demands that he write the obituary, and Jack knows the offer of the job as Polk’s executor and manager of the decisive shares, along with the $100,000 salary are dependent on him writing the obituary, that evening, to make the next day’s front page (p.355).

But he can’t. He has to drive to Lake Okeechobee and save Emma. Right away. And he can’t tell Abkazion the real reason or it will endanger Emma’s life.

Abkazion rants and raves and then is dumbstruck when Jack doesn’t relent. Jack gathers up all his notes and dumps them on the desk of timid Evan, a lowly intern, who’s helped out with a few other details of the plot. ‘This is your big change, kid,’ Jack tells Evan, like Harrison Ford in a movie, then runs off.

Jack and Juan do the 3 hour drive up to Lake Okeechobee at record speed (listening, inevitably, to the Rolling Stones), hire a boat from a sceptical rental guy (from Ernie Bo Tump’s Bass Camp), use the GPS to motor out into the dead middle of the lake, and then wait around being bitten by mosquitoes. It is night-time, it is pitch black.

They hear the enormous whacking sound of a huge airboat. Soon it comes within sight of Jack and Juan, steered by Jerry while Loréal minds Emma who has a sack over head sitting passively in a chair. It’s important to understand what an airboat is in order to  follow what happens next.

An airboat (Credit: Wikipedia)

From the description it sounds like a bigger version of the above. What follows is: Jerry demands the hard drive; Jack says, ‘Not till you throw away your gun’ and holds the hard drive over the side of their hire boat and starts counting down. Reluctantly Jerry tosses his gun which Jack hears splash in the lake. Jack insists they hand Emma down into the hire boat. Once she’s safe he throws the hard drive up at Jerry and Juan hits the motor and they speed off.

However, the bad guys’ airboat can go many times faster than them and their outboard is clogging up with weeds bringing them almost to a standstill, certainly unable to escape. They hear the airboat approaching from the side as if to ram over their boat, aiming to smash it to matchsticks.

Juan advises everyone to jump off but Jack stands up in the stern, ramrod straight and fires off every bullet in the little .38 handgun he was loaned by Carla last time he saw her. It’s unlikely the bullets hit anyone but it’s enough to scare Jerry into taking evasive action. They hear a great swash as the airboat passes close to them, but then… a crash and a scream!

Once they’ve got the outboard working again, our guys putter over towards the noise to discover the cause of the crash and scream. What happened is the airboat, in making its abrupt swerve to avoid Jack’s shooting, hit reeds, ground to a halt and upended.

Juan and Jack use the little spotlight fixed to the hire boat to make out that Jerry was thrown backwards and, when the airboat upended, the huge spinning propeller which drives these things cut his head off, which went flying with a splash into the lake. Loréal managed to keep his place at the front  of the boat but his long stylish ponytail dangled down into the fast-moving propeller, got tangled round  it, dragging him down down down until the machine’s torque ripped his scalp off. Yuk.

Our guys size all this up, then turn and putter calmly back south, back to the boat hire place and their car, and slowly carefully drive traumatised Emma back to safety.

Epilogue

They make it back to Jack’s apartment in the early hours. Emma sleeps like a log then rises and cooks Jack a lumberjack breakfast. Over brekkie they check out that morning’s edition of the Union-Register and Jack is astonished to find that the Polk obituary did get written in the end, is front page and, most surprising of all, appears under his byline, even though obviously written by young Evan.

He and Emma feel bad about this because of their journalistic scruples, but I hardly think the reader gives a monkey’s. Anyway, they ring up Evan and he sheepishly admits that, given the Big Opportunity, he froze with fear and it was the seasoned editor, Abkazion, who knocked it out in 20 minutes. Their consciences are absolved.

By the way, a running thread has been that his ex is not only marrying this cheap spy novelist, Derek Grenoble, but is doing so on Jack’s birthday. Now cheeky young Carla phones up to tell them what a lame pukefest the wedding was, featuring a terrible 3-page poem which Derek wrote Anne.

And Jack gets a birthday card from his mother which finally includes the obituary of his dad who a) died aged 46 – it is Jack’s birthday, he is 47, so he has outlived the jinx – and b) the obituary describes him as a penniless waterfront entertainer who made tips from crowds by being able to juggle anything, even pets, and died after drunkenly climbing up a tree to retrieve a raccoon and falling to his death when a branch broke. So not some big shot mystery man; a drunk street entertainer. Oh well.

Next day Jack meets up with Janet, who has rung him to tell him she’s back, for muffins and coffee.

She confirms that, on the night of her disappearance, she was getting changed into her SWAT outfit when the front door was broken open and two dudes started ransacking the place. Jack identifies them from her description as Jerry and Loréal. Janet got mad and burst into the hall in full SWAT outfit brandishing a (plastic) semi-automatic, which was enough to make them run out. Then she ran in the other direction and caught a cab to a friend’s house. As to the blood on the carpet, they guys had trashed her big studio lights and she trod on some glass. Bled like a hippo. Otherwise unharmed. Ah.

Not only that. Janet then leads Emma and Jack to the grave of a certain Eugene Marvin Brandt. Who? Why? She explains.

She reveals that this guy’s corpse was in the crematorium viewing room at the same time as Jimmy’s and, when everyone had left, she switched the tags. That is: Eugene got cremated while Jimmy now lies buried in this plot under Brandt’s headstone.

Jack is delighted. Now a proper autopsy can be performed! Jack sends the state prosecutor an anonymous message with the result that Jimmy’s body is dug up and the forensic scientists show his stomach was full of now fewer than 20 Benelyn tablets which Cleo Rio had crushed up and mixed into his clam chowder just before he made the fatal dive. Jimmy would have passed out and drowned.

There’s enough evidence for the prosecutor to charge Cleo with murder, to bring in various witnesses who’d seen the couple bitterly arguing, to give as motive the fact that she wanted to steal his best song to further her own career. After a three-week trial, Cleo is convicted and sentenced to 20 years.

Then Jack has a very satisfying meeting with Race Maggad III in his new role as trustee of Polk Macarthur’s shares in Maggad-Feist publishing. Jack tells a furious Maggad he will sell back Polk’s shares in Maggad-Feist on one condition – that they sell the Union-Register to Polk’s widow, the tough nurse who tended him in his last days, Ellen who he knows will look after and protect it.

Maggad is eventually forced to do this, and Ellen becomes the paper’s first female publisher., Her first act is to hire a load of news reporters and restore the paper to its former reporting strength. Given the careful explanations Hiaasen has given us throughout the novel about the financial pressures undermining old-style reporting and newspapers, this is in many ways the book’s real happy ending.

The final scene shows Jack taking Emma out to the pier where he took the goons’ phone call what seems like months ago, and they bump into old Ike the fisherman, the guy Jack chatted to while waiting for the bad guys’ phone call and who proudly tells them he’s just turned 93.

As they turn to go Ike catches a huge tarpon, nearly getting dragged over the safety rail and into the sea, till Jack and Emma grab hold of him. Jack can’t help thinking what his obituary would say and so the book ends with the two subjects closest to Hiaasen’s heart, fishing and journalism.

Thoughts

It has breadth, doesn’t it? Like all Hiaasen’s novels it ramifies out to feature about 20 named characters, many of whom have their own backstories described in some detail. And the first-person narrator is fleshed out with his obsession about dates, his love of newspapers, his oddities (the iguana in his deep freeze), his loving relationship with his mother who used to take him fishing as a boy, his still carrying a torch for the lovely Anne, and so on.

All the usual elements are here and neatly assembled into a cleverly constructed plot. But… for the reasons explained at the start, it lacks the ability to move at speed between characters which is a key aspect of Hiaasen’s novels, and the quirks and oddities Hiaasen ladles onto Jack don’t really compensate for the lack of real psychological depth.

One liners

‘Derek is a good guy. He’s fun, he’s affectionate, he doesn’t take life so damn seriously…’
‘You’ve just described a beagle, not a husband.’ (p.221)

‘Maybe I hit ’em with a shot.’
‘Right, Jack. And maybe one day hamsters will sing opera.’ (p.372)


Credit

Basket Case by Carl Hiaasen was published by Macmillan in 2001. All references are to the 2002 Pan paperback edition.

Carl Hiaasen reviews

  1. Tourist Season (1986)
  2. Double Whammy (1987)
  3. Skin Tight (1989)
  4. Native Tongue (1991)
  5. Strip Tease (1993)
  6. Stormy Weather (1995)
  7. Lucky You (1997)
  8. Sick Puppy (2000)
  9. Basket Case (2002)
  10. Skinny Dip (2004)
  11. Nature Girl (2006)
  12. Star Island (2010)
  13. Bad Monkey (2013)
  14. Razor Girl (2016)
  15. Squeeze Me (2020)

Strip Tease by Carl Hiaasen (1993)

‘Men will try anything,’ Monique Jr said, sceptically. ‘Anything for pussy.’
(Strip Tease, page 16)

There are many levels on which to consider this book:

  • for its place in Carl Hiaasen’s series of comedy thrillers
  • its dramatic theme (strip club)
  • its socioeconomic theme (the corrupt Florida sugar cane industry)
  • its political theme (corrupt drunk politicians)
  • its feminist theme (woman objectified and abused by men, and badly let down by a patriarchal legal system)
  • its contribution to the thriller genre – blackmail and murder
  • as gruesome farce – a man’s tongue is swallowed by a wolf, a man’s arm is replaced by a golf club

At the most factual level, Strip Tease is the fifth in Carl Hiaasen’s series of 15 bitingly funny, savagely farcical comedy thrillers set in the moral swamp that is South Florida, and it closely follows the winning formula established its predecessors.

The theme: erotic dancing

Top level is the book’s main theme and setting. The previous four novels each rotated around a distinct and colourful theme, namely: eco-terrorism, corrupt fishing competitions, bogus plastic surgery and crappy theme parks. This one centres on a not-very-successful nude dance club called ‘the Eager Beaver’ (which changes its name half way through to ‘The Tickled Pink’ (p.331).

It is not, the owner and performers emphasise, a strip club, but a venue for ‘exotic dancing’ – albeit the dancers are almost naked to start with and then take off their bras or g-strings to become fully naked. Characters refer to it as a ‘nudie bar’ or a ‘tittie bar’ (p.51).

The Eager Beaver is owned by Mr Orly, a sweaty, nervous man who tries to awe his customers and the disgruntled dancers he employs with lies about the club’s mythical Mafia owners – whereas, in fact, with comic irony its main investors turn out to be harmless orthopedic surgeons from Lowell, Massachussetts (p.102).

The Eager Beaver has a bouncer (who prefers to be referred to as a ‘floor manager’) named simply Shad, owner of an enormous bald head and impervious to physical pain, which comes in handy during the various fights he gets involved in (Shad’s full name is only finally given in the Epilogue on page 403: Gerard L. Shaddick).

And the club employs a set of 6 or 7 exotic dancers, chief among them Erin, the lead character in the novel. Other dances include Monique Sr and Monique Jr and Urbana Sprawl, a black stripper with big boobs and a no-nonsense attitude. (The word ‘sprawl’ made me think of William Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy of novels and also Les Murray’s wonderful poem, The Quality of Sprawl. Great word, ‘sprawl’.)

The setting of a ‘tittie bar’ provides countless opportunities for characters or the author to reflect on the sleazy nature of strip clubs, exotic dancing, the sex trade (although there is very little actual sex), and, in particular, loads of editorialising about:

  1. men, the sleazy men, sad men, frustrated men and scary men who attend titty bars, specially the new generation of bankers wearing Wall Street braces, driving BMWs, off their faces on cocaine, and
  2. the generally honest women who staff them, the novel giving a realistic depiction of their day-to-day worries as discussed in the poky dressing room (they complain about the air conditioning, the temperature, the pay, the character Lorelei complains about the crappy replacement she’s given after the original boa constrictor she danced with is kidnapped and chopped to pieces) when they’re not bumping and grinding on the stage or at high-paying individuals’ private tables

Orly’s club is in fierce competition with a rival just a mile down the road, the ‘Flesh Farm’ run by the Japanese Ling brothers. This doesn’t impinge on the ‘serious’ plot much but is a source of running gags as the Lings are continually trying to persuade Orly’s dancers to go and work for them, which leads Orly and Shad to plan increasingly florid counter-attacks. This low-level feud climaxes in Shad buying a hundred rats and vermin off a snake dealer down on his luck and chucking them down the air con vents at the Flesh Farm, having previously called up a hygiene inspector who is, therefore, on the premises just in time to observe the sudden outrageous vermin infestation.

Divorce law and Erin the exotic dancer

So, the strip club is the book’s obvious setting and this sub-set of the sex trade the novel’s obvious theme. But just as powerful, just as dominating in the narrative, is the plight of Erin the dancer (I don’t think we ever discover her last name), victim of what is portrayed as a brutally unfair, patriarchal legal system.

Erin is the daughter of a woman who became a professional gold-digger, marrying and divorcing a series of richer and richer men (p.26). In a bid to be different, Erin married Darrell Grant who was tall and handsome and kind but turned out to be a drug addict, lowlife thief. Once she’d realised this, Erin was on the verge of leaving him when she got pregnant and Darell promised to clean up his act. Thus it was that Erin had a daughter, Angela, but all too soon Grant fell back on his old ways. Erin sued for divorce but two things utterly screwed her.

One is that Grant had earlier been busted by two corrupt cops, Piccata and Merkin, who made a deal to not prosecute him if he became a stoolpigeon and copper’s narc. As a result, they deleted his long and seedy criminal record from the computer records so Erin had no evidence for his egregious worthlessness.

Meantime, Erin discovered that lawyers’ fees for pursuing a divorce case are very expensive and found out the hard way that she couldn’t afford them, as a clerk working in the office of the local FBI (p.40).

So a friend recommended exotic dancing as a way of trebling her income and the novel describes Erin’s first tentative steps in front of a mirror (p.26), her first few nights at the club (p.86), and then how she settled into a regular 5 night a week job at the Eager Beaver, paying four times as much as her clerk wage.

(The trick, she says more than once, is to forget about the smutty men grabbing at your legs and lose yourself in the music and indeed a lot of music is mentioned in the book, Madonna, Prince, ZZ Top, rap music. Erin prefers white rock if she’s in the mood – ZZ Top or the Allmann Brothers – or singer-songwriter stuff if she’s feeling more soulful – Jackson Brown, or Van Morrison, ‘Dancin’ in the Moonlight’.)

Trouble is, when the divorce case came to court: a) Grant’s egregious criminal record had been disappeared by the two cops, and b) Grant can easily prove to the court that Erin is a stripper and therefore an ‘unsuitable mother’ to have custody of her child.

Thus, through the corruption and hypocrisy of the system, the drug addict thief Grant is granted custody of little Angela, now aged four. He sets a terrible example. It is a travesty of any kind of justice.

To really rub it in, we are given three additional facts:

  1. Scumbag Grant’s latest money-making scam is stealing wheelchairs for the disabled. Turns out they have no licence plate or identifier, are easy to buff up and sell on to hospitals, old peoples homes etc. Erin is driven to distraction when she learns that her little girl is being used in these wheelchair heists, but she has no legal way of rescuing her.
  2. Grant has a sister, Rita, who is raising and training a litter of wolves. Rita is sympathetic to her divorced sister-in-law but her husband, Alberto, who works at the Turkey Point nuclear power plant (p.36) drools over Erin on her occasional visits. Eventually, fed up of his leching, she agrees to perform a little private dance for him when his wife is out back with the wolves. Erin leads Alberto on and then, just as he’s started to froth with excitement, gives him a violent knee to the jaw which makes him bite his tongue off and knocks him out. Rita bursts in with one of the wolf pups, which promptly gobbles up Alberto’s severed tongue before anyone can stop him (p.189).
  3. Adding maximum insult to injury, the very same judge who denied Erin custody of her daughter because of her so-called ‘immorality’, himself becomes a regular visitor to the Eager Beaver, achieving an acme of male hypocrisy by prominently displaying a Bible on his desk next to his cocktail, and loudly telling anyone who’ll listen that he’s here to ‘save’ the poor benighted girls, all the while under the table with his other hand he’s busy whacking off at the sight of all this poon.

The ultimate peak of scumbag hypocrisy is reached when this two-faced judge tells Erin, when she confronts him at his table in the club, that he’ll reverse his custody decision only if she gives him a blowjob (p.68). Erin is a woman of principles, almost the only character in the book with any, and angrily refuses. Men!

‘All you got to do is flash your twat and men throw money. Isn’t it a great country, Erin? Aren’t you proud to be an American?’ (Darrell Grant, p.62)

Sugar money

American politics has always been about money, power and corruption. It’s amazing how many journalists, commentators, academics and naive liberals think otherwise, think it’s something to do with democracy or liberty or some such.

So the other central theme of this novel is the vast amount of money generated by the Florida sugar cane industry. Hiaasen is so exercised by this that he explains it in journalistic detail not once but at least four times (pages 13, 111, 210, 366). The last chapter intersperses plot with chunks of factual exposition which could come from a magazine article about sugar cane, its agriculture, profits, work practices, how it is grown, harvested and refined (chapter 31).

Key fact is: The US Federal Government keeps the price of domestic sugar cane artificially high,  thus subsidising the big sugar companies with taxpayer money. At the same time the US government also bans the import of sugar cane from the poor countries of the Caribbean and Latin America, helping to keep those nations in dependency and poverty.

Nonetheless, the wretched job of growing and in particular cutting the ripe cane crop falls to the poorest immigrants from precisely those wretched Caribbean countries, who work a punishing 10 hour day in the blistering Florida heat for a pittance.

Hiaasen invents a super-rich sugar cane family, the Rojo dynasty, who own just such a huge sugar cane growing and refining company, the Sweetheart Sugar Corporation. The senior and spooky owners of the corporation are Wilberto and Joaquin Rojo. Through these characters Hiaasen describes the nature of the business, the way government subsidises them, how they ruthlessly exploit their labour to the limit, and how all the pollution and waste from the industry is poured off into the Everglades to kill the eco-system.

The guaranteed government subsidies mean that the Rojo family has so much money it literally doesn’t know what to do with it. This is epitomised by the young scion of the family, dashing cocaine addict Christopher Rojo, who spends his entire life cruising in a chauffeur-driven limousine from high-class parties to strip clubs, awash in champagne, coke and hookers.

The drunken lecherous politician

What about the plot, I hear you ask. Well, the novel kicks off at the Eager Beaver one night when a totally drunk husband-to-be, Paul Guber, out on his stag night, drunkenly clambers onto the stage and embraces Erin while she’s doing her routine, grabs her round the waist, so close that her pubic hair looks like his goatee.

What nobody expects is that Erin has a secret, not-to-say obsessive admirer, a US Congressman named David Lane Dilbeck (p.174) (detailed backstory p.232).

On this particular fateful evening. Congressman Dilbeck also happens to be in the Eager Beaver, drunk off his face, and when he sees some guy groping his favourite dancer, he too lurches up onto the stage and starts beating Paul Guber over the head with a heavy champagne bottle. Again and again. When the Beaver’s bald bouncer, Shad, tries to stop him, Dilbeck’s minder and bagman, Erb Crandall, draws his gun as a threat. The whole thing has got wildly out of control in just a few moments.

What makes this absurd incident the trigger for a 400-page comedy thriller is that several people in the club that night recognise Dilbeck (despite his feeble disguise of a false moustache), someone takes a series of photos of the incident, and so his people are agonisingly aware that he could be blackmailed and ruined: for being in a stripclub at all, and for aggravated assault.

Now Dilbeck, routinely described by all who know him as a scumbag dickhead, is not himself unexpendable save for one big fact: Dilbeck plays a key role in Congress in getting the US sugar subsidy laws renewed each year. In other words, he may be a pitiful ‘pussy hound’, a thick-witted alcoholic and a prey to the every pretty woman he sees – but behind him stand some very seriously rich heads of the Florida sugar cane industry and they are not about to see their fortunes jeopardised. After all:

In politics, stealing is trouble but pussy is lethal. (p.260)

An election is pending and Dilbeck is up against the admittedly bonkers right-wing Republican candidate, Eloy Flickman (who wants to nuke Havana) but still, he is the sugar lobby’s swingman in Washington so anything which threatens Dilbeck threatens very rich powerful people which is why some of the little people who think they can swing a little blackmail are in for a very nasty surprise.

The political fixer

Which is where we come to the political fixer who is employed by the powerful Rojo family to keep dim Dilbert on the straight and narrow. This is the cold, calculating Malcolm J. Moldovsky. (It is a very fleeting coincidence that this Machiavellian political fixer bears the same first name as the Machiavellian political fixer in the British TV series The Thick of It, Malcolm Tucker.)

Malcolm is very short (‘no taller than a jockey’, p.236), very clever, dresses carefully and precisely and his political hero is John Mitchell, Attorney General to President Richard M. Nixon, convicted for his part in covering up the Watergate break-in (pages 126 and 323).

Moldovsky is used to doing political deals, bribery and payoffs, he is sued to the subtle interplay of power and money, so he is unhappy when the crudeness of the Eager Beaver affair forces him to take unusually direct action.

First is the murder of Jerry Killian (profile p.82). Killian is a sweet and fairly innocent guy who just adores Erin’s dancing and attends the club night after night to watch her. He was one of the few to recognise the Congressman and he makes the bad mistake of trying to shake down Malcolm. In fact, when the pair have a meeting Malcolm is genuinely surprised when all Killian wants is for the Congressman to have a word with the presiding judge in Erin’s custody case in order to award her her well-deserved custody. We learn that the judge in question wants to get promotion to the federal circuit, Killian wants Dilbert to tell this judge he will put in a good word for him in exchange for the judge reversing his decision and awarding Erin custody of Angela. That appears to be how the legal system works in America.

Despite his modest aims, Malcom realises he can’t have Killian swinging round making wild claims and so has him bumped off by three Jamaicans. His body is found in the Clark Fork River in far-distant Montana where he was wont to take his annual leave and where, by farcical coincidence, Detective Al García is on vacation with his second wife and his step-kids. Al García? Yes the very same Dade County detective we have met in the previous three Hiaasen novels. Thus, despite being on holiday, he finds himself being drawn into a murder case originating over a thousand miles away.

Second to be murdered is Paul Guber’s fiancée, Joyce Mizner (p.321), and her fat shyster lawyer Jonathan Peter Mordecai (comic backstory p.191, full name p.402). Mordecai also tries to contact the Congressman and is put through to Malcolm, meets and tries to shake him down. He claims to have photos of the whole incident.

(It is very funny the way Joyce Mizner is corrupted: at first she is amazed and shocked to discover her fiancé was at a strip club; then she is all devotion and attention when visiting Guber in hospital where it takes him several weeks to recover from his battering; then the lawyer slowly tempts her, holding out the possibility of big bucks compensation; then crosses a line by suggesting they blackmail the Congressman, Joyce becoming steadily more interested in securing her and her husband-to-be’s futures; and finally the lawyer corrupts her enough that Joyce drops all plans to share the money with Paul and settles in to becoming the lawyer’s partner in their ill-fated blackmail scam.)

Anyway, cunning Malcolm says he needs time to consider, then arranges a second meeting. He doesn’t attend the second meeting. Instead Mordecai and Joyce (Paul is away on business in New York) are met by some tough guys who kill them then attach their car to an empty freight vessel which is due to be blown up and sunk in Biscayne Bay and where, many months later, a horrified honeymoon couple on a scuba diving trip discover them. Very elaborate, violent and grotesque. Very Hiaasen.

Grotesque incidents

A lot happens in 400 pages, after all it’s one of the characteristic features of farce as a genre, that the plot becomes evermore manically complicated, featuring wildly improbable coincidences, garish characters and gruesome events. For example:

I’ve mentioned Erin’s sister-in-law’s husband biting off his own tongue when she kicks him under the jaw and that one of their pet wolf cubs eats it.

The judge who awarded against Erin in the custody case has a heart attack and dies at the Flesh Farm. ‘The man died staring at pussy, ‘says Shad. ‘There’s worse ways to go’ (p.169).

Darrell, high on drugs, gets into a fight with Shad, wrestling him down on the ground and carving a G into his bald head.

A lot later Shad is able to return the favour by swinging a tyre jack at Darrell so hard that it shatters his arm, exposing the bone (p.309). Darrell’s endlessly patient sister, Rita, fixes him up, using a golf club as a splint, arranging it head downwards so that it becomes a very effective bludgeoning tool when Darrell goes on one of his rampages.

We learn that Al García’s non-descript Chrysler always has an Igloo ice-box in the back. At one point his new buddy Shad asks him if there are any beers in it. No, García replies, he uses it to store dismembered body parts.

In what is probably the most macabre scene, Shad, an imposing figure, forces his way into the office of the Ling brothers at the Flesh Farm, strips and dangles the younger Ling brother by his hands from a wall fitting and then looses from a bag he’s carrying a live boa constrictor.

We experience Ling’s (comic?) terror as the huge snake twines round his leg and then spots something hanging between his thighs which looks like a nice juicy hamster (his penis) before it springs at lightning speed (pages 338 to 339). This extreme measure, in case you’re wondering, was payback for Ling touching up one of the Eager Beaver dancers who went to work for him and came back in tears.

Both Shad and Orly are oddly puritanical. In fact it is a running joke that after 11 years exposure to bare naked women, Shad doesn’t even realise they’re naked any more. He can only get remotely turned on by clothed women.

Late in the plot García is late to the yacht where Erin has made a date with the congressman because he is delayed by a domestic homicide. Jesse James Braden spilt some of his Bloody Mary on the freshly laundered upholstery of his wife’s Toyota Camry so she shot him three times in the genitals. According to witnesses who saw the dying man stumble from the car, his schlong was pumping like a firehose as he bled to death (p.344).

See what I mean by grotesque?

The climax

The climax comes when Erin agrees to go and do some private dancing for Dilbeck on the luxury yacht he’s allowed to use by the fabulously wealthy Rojo family (and which they have punningly named The Sweetheart Deal).

Malcolm hangs around nervously outside on deck, ostensibly to protect his ward, which is where Darrell, out of his tree on a range of painkillers and wolf medication (provided by his sister), and in pursuit of Erin who he blames for his increasingly violent accidents, confronts Malcolm and quickly bores of the short, smart man’s clever answers and simply bludgeons him to death with the club. Oh well.

When Darrell stumbles into the cabin where Erin is dancing for the Congressman, she deftly pulls a gun and guides both men out to the waiting limo. She’s gotten friendly with Dilbeck’s chauffeur, a Haitian who’s fed up of his employer’s casual racism and warms to Erin who treats him as a human being.

So the chauffeur doesn’t ask any questions but drives Erin, spaced-out Darrell and drunk Dilbeck miles out of town to, fittingly enough, a sugar cane plantation. Here Darrell brandishes his golf club before running off and Erin can’t quite bring herself to shoot him. In any case, the narrator tells us, Darrell the lowlife scumbag finds a hopper full of cut cane and falls fast asleep in it. Next morning the hopper feeds its load, along with hundreds of others, onto a conveyor belt and into a cane cutting machine which dices comatose Darrell into thousands of shreds and flakes, before the metal golf club gums up the works and prompts workers to call the cops.

Erin didn’t want Darrell anyway. Back in the cane field, she forces Dilbeck to start chopping cane with the machete she’d thoughtfully packed. Of course he is flabby and red with exhaustion in just a minute. Neither of them can believe that the Haitian and Dominican workers in these groves cut 8 tons a day each! Modern slavery.

Next Erin strips a little and allows Dilbeck to dirty dance with her. He has just got predictably carried away, and has pushed her to the ground and is fiddling with his willy, when a load of cars pull up and illuminate them in their headlights.

Remember I mentioned that back before she took up dirty dancing, Erin had worked in the Florida office of the FBI, for a cleancut good guy named Officer Cleary. Well, they had stayed in touch, he’d tried to help her with her divorce and custody case, and now she had phoned him and told him to come with backup out to this specific cane plantation and catch a crooked Congressman.

And so it is that three carloads of FBI agents catch a half-naked, sweaty Congressman rolling on the floor with a woman half his age, attempting rape. Soon afterwards Detective Al García and Shad roll up. Through the complex convolutions of the plot they have formed an unlikely buddy-buddy partnership  based on joint concern for Erin’s safety and, although they arrived at the luxury yacht too late to find Erin, she had written the location of the cane plantation in lipstick on the toilet mirror, which explains why they turn up now to discover the placed crawling with Feds.

So now Erin puts her plans to the Congressman. Plan A is she prosecutes him for rape with carsfull of FBI agents as witnesses, and his name is ruined forever. Plan B, Dilbeck has a strategic heart attack, retires sick for a few weeks, thus effectively conceding the upcoming election and, at least temporarily, and in a small way, breaking the stranglehold of the sugar lobby on Congress.

I didn’t like this ending at all, it felt like it just didn’t come off. Previous novels ended in balls of flame like James Bond movies, but Erin taking the Congressman out to a field in the middle of nowhere and encouraging him to get naked and aroused by dirty dancing with him, in the hope that the Feds would turn up in the nick of time… It felt wildly implausible but not in a crazed, bizarre way, just in a ‘not very good plan’ kind of way.

The patheticness of men

Quite a steady stream of criticisms of how lame and poon crazy men are, incapable of thinking with anything except their dicks.

  • Men are easily dazzled. (p.368)
  • It taught Erin one of life’s great lessons: an attractive woman could get whatever she wanted, because men are so laughably weak. They would do anything for even the distant promise of sex. (p.26)
  • How easily amused they are! she thought. There was little difference between this and what her mother did; it was the same game of tease, the same basic equation. Use what you’ve got to get what you want. (p.27)
  • Erin was constantly reminded of the ridiculous power of sex; routine female nakedness reduced some men to stammering, clammy-fingered fools. (p.87)
  • In such extreme states of desire, men tended to lose their fine-motor skills. (p.188)
  • Men were so helpless, she thought, so easily charmed. Monique Jr was right: they’d do anything for it. Anything. (p.243)

A possible solution

What to do about men’s insatiable appetite for sexual stimulation? Well, hundreds of thousands of feminists have been working on the problem for half a century. A character in this novel, clear-eyed Malcolm, suggests wanking. After all it is the ultimate in safe sex and, in our COVID times, entirely lockdown-compliant. As he tells the helpless ‘pussy hound’ Dilbeck:

‘Know what we need to do? We need to teach you to masturbate creatively. Then maybe you wouldn’t bother women.’ (p.158)

But the way both Shad and Orly have become utterly indifferent to all the naked boobs and bums around them suggests a different way forward. To some extent the naked female form excites such lust in men because it is so strictly rationed; in cold puritanical England, a bare boob is a rarity ogled at by every man in sight.

The obvious solution is for women to wear less, a lot less. In this respect the Free The Nipple campaign is onto something. If topless women were ever to become as common and everyday as men who work (doing manual work) topless or sunbathe topless, it would remove a lot of the mystique, it might even become boring, boring enough that men didn’t break their necks ogling and leering over every millimetre of cleavage to women’s disgust and, often, bewilderment. After all, what’s the big deal, as Erin tells the drunk and lecherous Congressman:

‘Two pleasant handfuls of fat… That’s your basic human breast, Davey. Ninety-eight percent fat, with a cherry on top. What’s the big attraction?’ (p.356)

But that will never happen. Nothing much has changed since this book was published 30 years ago; I don’t expect much to change in this regard in the next 30 years, if I live that long.

Miami Vice references

Hiaasen referenced the smash hit TV show Miami Vice in the previous novel. Figures, it covers his turf.

And the stubble,’ Erin said. ‘Come here, let’s see.’
‘No way.’ He stood up sullenly.
‘Is this your Don Johnson period?’ (p.61)

Except it doesn’t really. The TV show promoted an image of South Florida as cool, full of handsome dudes in designer stubble wearing Armani jackets and driving shiny convertibles. Hiaasen, as we have seen, is more about low rent strip clubs, corrupt businessmen, drunken Congressmen, lowlife psychopaths and trailer trash.

Types of fuck

In an earlier novel Hiaasen introduced me to the concept of ‘sportfucking’ i.e. sleeping around just for laughs. In Native Tongue Joe Winder’s girlfriend Nina offers him a ‘mercy fuck’. Now, Congressman Dilbeck considers he is (that sleeping with him amounts to) a ‘powerfuck’ i.e. having sex with the rich and powerful. It’s good to be educated about these matters.

Epilogue

Hiaasen’s novels routinely feature an epilogue giving us brief summaries of the fates of his characters. From this we learn that even though Dilbeck quits the election race he is still elected in his absence, but nonetheless retires. But that doesn’t stop the agricultural committee of Congress renewing the multi-million dollar subsidies to the sugar industry.Nothing can. Big money corruption is eternal (p.401).


Credit

Strip Tease by Carl Hiaasen was published in the UK by Macmillan London in 1993. All references are to the 1994 Pan paperback edition.

Carl Hiaasen reviews

Skin Tight by Carl Hiaasen (1989)

‘This is the worst year of my life, and it’s only the seventeenth of January.’
(Private investigator Mick Stranahan, Skin Tight, page 134)

Skin Tight is the third of Carl Hiaasen’s scathing and savagely satirical depictions of the corruption, greed and environmental destruction infesting his home state of Florida. If its predecessor, Double Whammy‘s central subject was the surprising corruption and violence surrounding coarse fishing and its big-stakes competitions, Skin Tight‘s central theme is plastic surgery. But, as usual, from the central topic all kinds of weird, macabre and violent threads spin off in all directions.

Mick Stranahan, Private Investigator, is the tough and capable guy we’re used to in the thriller genre. He has killed 5 men, some in Vietnam (p.21), been married and divorced five times (all to cocktail waitresses, p.90), now lives as an ‘outsider’, on a house on stilts built over the ocean ‘in the stretch of Biscayne Bay known as Stiltsville’ (p.11). (It’s worth noting in passing that Skink, Hiaasen’s great recurring character, also served in Vietnam.)

Mick had worked at the State’s Attorney’s office till he went to arrest a notoriously corrupt judge, Raleigh Gomper, who pulled a gun and, in the struggle, Stranahan shot Gomper dead. Though he was exonerated at the trial, shooting dead a judge didn’t sit well with an employee of the State Prosecutor and so Mick was forced to take early retirement. Hence, he is now a part-time private detective, the absolutely classic profession of the thriller genre, most famously embodied in Raymond Chandler‘s Philip Marlow.

Dr Rudolph ‘Rudy’ Graveline runs a plastic surgery clinic, the Whispering Palms Spa and Surgery Centre. In fact he himself is an unqualified butcher of a surgeon but is wise enough to concentrate on acting as the avuncular salesman and comforter of the nation’s many misfeatured and malshaped narcissists – taking their money but leaving the actual surgery to a team of four well-paid and infinitely more capable juniors.

The trigger for the plot is Maggie Gonzalez for Maggie knows that four years earlier, on 12 March 1986, Graveline ran a clinic called the Durkos Medical Centre and was giving a routine rhinoplasty (nose job) to a young woman, Victoria Barletta, when he accidentally killed her (p.39).

In a panic, Rudy called his brother, George Graveline, who had a gardening and tree surgeon business, and they disposed of the body in a timber grinder. When her family raised Victoria’s disappearance with the authorities, Rudy and all his staff swore she left the clinic after surgery, went and sat at the local bus stop but then disappeared, presumed kidnapped. To get them to agree to this cover story, he had to pay key members of his staff a hefty bribe. (A year or so later one of the doctors, Dr Kenneth Greer, tumbled to what had happened and started blackmailing Rudy, so Rudy paid for him to be disposed of in a ‘hunting accident’, p.285.)

Back to the present and, after a failed marriage and a series of pathetic failed relationships, Maggie is now broke and decides to cash in on what she knows (p.56). She goes to the New York office of a crime-investigating TV show, hosted by the unbearably preening TV presenter Reynaldo Flemm (who has a kinky penchant for doorstepping criminals and provoking them till he gets beaten up) and his long-suffering, clever and dishy producer, Christina Marks.

(It is typical of the duplicitousness of almost all the characters that we learn, late in the book, that the would-be smooth Hispanic Flemm is in fact really named Raymond Fleming and changed his name and appearance to appear more ethnic and glamorous.) Maggie tells Flemm and Marks her story and promises to repeat it on camera for $5,000.

Then it crosses Maggie’s scheming mind that she can probably have it both ways –getting money from the TV company and blackmailing the doctor – so she phones up Dr Rudy and says she’s scared because a Private Investigator, Mick Stranahan, has come snooping and seems to be about to revive the case. She has Mick’s name and number from back before he retired, was still an active prosecutor, and was briefly involved in the initial investigation. Now she just whistles his name up out of thin air as an entirely fictional threat solely in order to gouge more greenbacks out of Rudy.

Mick knows nothing about any of this but Maggie’s ploy not only persuades Dr Rudy to cough up some more hush money for Maggie but sets him thinking how to eliminate Mick as a threat. And so it is that when the TV people, Flemm and Marks, arrange a meeting with Dr Rudy, telling him they know all about the fatal accident though refusing to reveal their source, Rudy mistakenly believes that their source really is Stranahan (not, as it actually is, Maggie) and that Mick is about to blow the whole story and get him arrested for murder.

Thus it is that, based on this misunderstanding (Maggie’s deception), Rudy decides he has to get rid of Mick and so phones a contact in New Jersey, ‘Curly Eyebrows’. Rudy used to do basic plastic surgery for the Mob up there, nothing too complicated, just nose jobs and tummy tucks for the wives. Now he uses these contacts to hire a Mafia hitman, Tony ‘the Eel’ Traviola (p.59).

The novel opens with Mick innocently sitting on the decking of his house out in the bay, watching the boat approaching carrying a guy who we, the readers, know to be this hitman. You don’t get many strangers round these parts so Mick retreats into his house, takes down the stuffed marlin head from the wall and, when the hitman makes his move, standing in the doorway with gun in hand, Mick leaps out and thrusts the marlin’s long frontal spike into the man’s chest, severing his aorta and snapping his spine. Ah. Oh.

All this information is conveyed in the book’s first 30 pages, as a scene-setter or prologue, a kind of powerhouse of information structuring and communication.

Undeterred, Rudy hires a second hitman who will turn out to dominate the novel, a freak called Chemo, 6 feet 9 inches feet tall. Chemo acquired his nickname after suffering a catastrophic accident during a routine electrolysis treatment for a couple of unsightly pores on his nose. The surgeon, Dr Kyle Koppner, had a stroke and swept the electrolysis machine right across Chemo’s face, with the result that it looks like it’s made of Rice Krispies.

He looked like Fred Munster with bulimia. (p.207)

In agony, Chemo killed Koppner on the spot. For added incongruity, Hiaasen gives Chemo (real name Blondell Wayne Tatum, age 38, six foot nine, p.223) a long convoluted backstory which has him orphaned at an early age, raised by the Amish relatives, before he finally rebels and holds up a bank,. However, Chemo then (typically for Hiaasen) discovers he has a talent for local politics, with its combination of intimidation and corruption. But the facial disfigurement and the murder of the doctor abruptly ends his career in politics which, in America, is all about appearance.

The plot ramifies outwards like ripples in a lake. We learn that Gravelines had planned to invest some of his millions in a crooked real estate deal at a property named Old Cypress Towers. When he comes under pressure from – as he incorrectly believes – Mick Stranahan, he lets the crooked authorities who were taking bribes to let the planning permission go ahead, know that he is going to pull out unless something is done about Stranahan.

And so the head of the cabal of crooked local councillors, Roberto Pepsical, goes to see two of the thickest, slimiest cops on the police force, Joe Salazar and John Murdock, and tells them there’s greenbacks in it for them if they can get rid of Stranahan.

Meanwhile, Stranahan, realising someone is out to kill him, calls up his philandering brother-in-law, Kipper Garth (married to Stranahan’s sister, Kate), a supposed lawyer who in fact runs a sort of phone sales operation which chases claims of malpractice or injury and passes them on to reputable lawyers (pages 113 to 114) in what he calls ‘the referral racket’ (p.309).

Stranahan tells Garth that, for once, he’s going to have to prosecute an actual case himself, against Rudy, and hands over files of over a dozen patients of Dr Gravelines who have made various failed attempts to sue him. Pick one and sue him for real, Stranahan tells his brother-in-law, otherwise he’ll tell his wife all about Garth’s numerous infidelities which, with his connections at the Prosecutor’s office, Mick has managed to get documentary evidence about.

The plot then thickens over 400 pages of increasing complications, farcical twists and violent outbursts:

Maggie goes to New York and records a video giving her eye-witness account of the death of Victoria Barletta. Rudy pays Chemo to track her down and kill her but, when he finally confronts her in her New York hotel room, Maggie is so touchingly sympathetic about his face and his crippled hand that they end up becoming an extremely odd item. It helps that she herself has just undergone some plastic surgery with a view to changing her identity, so they can compare scars.

Mick gets to know the TV producer Christina and ends up having an affair with her, showing her the delights of nature, far from the city, making love under the stars on the decking of his house on stilts.

Improbably but comically Rudy Graveline has an affair with a stunningly good-looking model and TV star, Heather Chappell, who insists he operate on her even though her body is absolutely perfect. To get a discount for the operation, Heather lets Rudy screw him every which way in a variety of unexpected locations.

Detective Al García from Dade-Miami Police Department (who Hiaasen fans will recognise from the first two novels) shows up, sympathetic to Stranahan but representing a kind of recurring threat that he  (Mick) might be arrested at various points when various congeries of evidence point against him. For example, García doesn’t believe Stranahan’s claim that he has nothing to do with the macabre deaths of the two corrupt cops.

However, Stranahan steals a copy of the video in which Maggie describes the killing of Victoria Barletta and shows it to García who from that point onwards becomes a staunch ally.

In a dramatic scene Mick visits Rudy’s brother, George Graveline, at work as a tree surgeon. His questions rattle George so much that he whacks Stranahan over the head with a mahogany log and starts to feed his unconscious body into the timber shredder. However, García, who is quietly tailing Stranahan, sees this all happen and shoots Graveline, who drops Stranahan and himself falls head-first into the shredder and is blattered all over the place as Mick woozily regains consciousness.

Maggie reveals to Chemo the gravity of Rudy’s crime (murder) emphasising that Rudy is paying him an insultingly small amount. Angered, Chemo uses his garden strimmer on Graveline’s new apple red Jaguar.

Rudy takes a heavy suitcase containing $25,000 to meet the corrupt commissioner Roberto Pepsical in the confessional of a Catholic church but as they kneel, Rudy injects Pepsical with enough potassium to cause a massive heart attack, packs up and discreetly leaves. He is becoming a serial killer.

Meanwhile Kipper Garth had some luck with one of the plaintiffs Mick had turned up, one John Nordstrom who paid Rudy for his wife, Marie, to have a boob job which was so bad the boobs in question became rock hard and one day, during sex, she moved quickly and literally had his eye out, being blind in one eye leading him (Nordstrom) to lose his job as an air traffic controller. Savage comedy.

Garth pops round with the legal papers to see the couple and discovers that John is at work, in  his new job as a sports coach. Seeing an opportunity, slimy Garth talks the wife, Marie, into letting him touch her rock hard boobs. He’s in the middle of doing it just when John walks in. John’s new job as as a jai-alai coach and so quick as a flash he fires off a hardball with his wicker-glove which hits Garth at the back of the skull, knocking him unconscious to the floor.

Maggie and Chemo help Rudy sell Reymondo Flemm’s corpse to a man named Kimbler who sells body parts to schools and colleges in Central America.

At some point in all this mayhem Chemo kidnaps Christina the TV producer from her hotel under Rudy’s orders. Rudy gets a messenger to deliver a ransom note to Mick out on his stilt house. However, Mick bites back by kidnapping the actress Heather Chappell who Rudy is boffing and taking her back to his house on the sea, leaving a written note for Rudy and his gang to bring Christina out to the house for a hostage exchange.

And it is this exchange of the two women which forms the climax of the novel: Rudy, Chemo, Maggie and their hostage Christina turn up in a boat at Mick’s stilt house expecting to do a hostage swap for beautiful Heather. Except Heather doesn’t want to go. Rudy had promised he’d give her light plastic surgery all over, had doped her out for a day, covered her in bandages and lied that he’d done the procedures. After kidnapping her, Stranahan removes all the bandages and proves that her ‘boyfriend’ is a liar. So now Heather doesn’t want to go back to Rudy.

Rudy, Christina, Chemo and Maggie clamber aboard Mick’s deck but as she gives him a helping push upwards, Maggie pickpockets from Chemo the keys to her and Chemo’s motel room, where they’ve stashed all the loot they’ve stolen from Rudy, meaning to head back by herself and take it all. When Chemo realises she’s done this he dives on top of her to seriously hurt her but Stranahan knocks him out with the butt of his shotgun.

When Chemo comes round, the boat has left with the women, Christina, Heather and Maggie. It’s just the men in the stilt house, Mick, Chemo and Rudy.

Mich has handcuffed Rudy spreadeagled to his bed. Mick has a cunning plan. He is going to recreate a nosejob on Rudy in order to terrify him into confessing everything, how he killed Victoria Barletta, got rid of the body, paid for a hit on the doctor colleague who was blackmailing him, hired Chemo to kill Mick, and so on.

But as the interrogation reaches its vital moment and as he has a small cold metal chisel stuck up Rudy’s nose as if he really is going to break the bone, unexpectedly Chemo gives it a big whack with a hammer and it goes right up into Rudy’s brain, killing him instantly. Shit. Stranahan had promised García he would hand over the culprit to the murder along with a full confession. Shit. Mick is going to have to come up with a plan B.

In the short concluding chapter Detective Al García is motorboated out to the stilt house by Luis Córdova, a young marine patrolman who regularly calls by Stranahan’s house, a good guy, where they find Chemo by himself with the corpse of Rudy Graveline. No Mick anywhere. The cops immediately jump to a false conclusion about what must have happened. They mistakenly assume that Chemo lured Rudy out here and subjected him to a torture which went gruesomely wrong. It all fits together. The bad guys are either dead or going to gaol.

When they look for Mick Stranahan there is no sign and his skiff is holed and sunk under the house. Off in the distance, hard to focus on, García thinks he sees a porpoise or giant turtle amid the waves. Couldn’t be a man. Couldn’t be Mick Stranahan swimming in the distance. Nah. He turns back to the murder suspect. It is a happy ending. Sort of.

Gruesome violence

‘It’s like a nightmare of weirdness.’ Al García (p.323)

The book is littered with cruel, grotesque and macabre violent incidents:

  • Chemo’s face being wrecked by a plastic surgeon having a stroke.
  • Mick killing the hitman Tony ‘the Eel’ Traviola with the spear of a stuffed marlin.
  • For a spell, Chemo hooks up with Chloe Simpkins Stranahan, one of Mick’s ex-wives. She tells Chemo that when Mick found her shagging one of the many men she was unfaithful with, Mick didn’t beat him up but glued him by the testicles to the bonnet of an Eldorado convertible (p.74).
  • Chloe eggs Chemo on to burn down Mick’s shack but eventually makes the bad mistake of ridiculing Chemo’s appearance while they’re driving a speedboat through the lagoons, with the result that Chemo chucks the boat’s 30 pound anchor at her, which knocks her straight over the side and down to the bottom of the lagoon, drowning her (p.99).
  • Mick feeds fish to a huge barracuda which likes to idle in the shade beneath his house on stilts. When Chemo comes to kill him, Mick shoots Chemo backwards off the decking and into the water where Chemo’s splashing attracts the big fish which darts up and bites off Chemo’s hand. Chemo survives and makes it back to civilisation where he goes to see a doctor. They offer him various prosthetic replacements, but Chemo’s preferred option takes across the narrative across a border into Hiaasen bizarro land when Chemo attaches a mini-lawn strimmer, a Weed Whacker, to his stump, powered by a battery tucked under his armpit, and which he uses to devastating effect in the second half of the book.
  • When the corrupt cops Joe Salazar and John Murdock hire a boat to motor out to Mick’s lake hideaway and bump him off, as ordered by their corrupt superior (in fact Mick is now staying in the rundown cabin of an old buddy, after his own house on stilts has been ransacked), Mick doesn’t wait for a shootout but ties super-strong fishing twine across the narrow entrance to the lagoon front of the house so that the two cops, approaching in a boat at 42 miles per hour, are  instantly garroted. Well, one of them is, the other one takes a while to die in agony (chapter 23).
  • Stranahan goes to see George Graveline to try and get him to talk his brother into laying off the assassination attempts. George makes a bid to strangle Stranahan who punches him under the heart then in the balls, then treads on his neck to calm him down, then kneels down next to him to carry on the conversation. At which point George whacks him with a chunk of mahogany and starts feeding Stranahan’s unconscious body into the timber shredder. At which point, García, who’d accompanied Stranahan to the meeting but stayed in the car, shoots George Graveline who himself falls into the timber shredder and is shredded to a pulp and bone splinters (p.282).

See what I mean by violent and macabre?

But the cherry on the cake is the incident near the end of the novel when Reynaldo Flemm decides to go undercover at Dr Graveline’s clinic in order to get a TV scoop. He checks in under the false name Johnny LeTigre pretending to be a male stripper who needs liposuction and a nose job. The plan is that Flemm’s cameraman, Willie will burst in mid-nose job, toss Reynaldo a microphone and the latter will bombard Graveline with cutting questions about the Victoria Barletta murder and so get a TV exclusive.

But the plan all goes horribly wrong. 1. Instead of doing the nose job first, Graveline decides to do the liposuction, which requires a general anaesthetic so Flemm can neither shout out instructions to his cameraman loitering outside, carry out an interview or anything. 2. Graveline is an unqualified incompetent who barely knows what he’s doing. 3. When Willie finally finds the correct operating theatre and bursts in, distracting Graveline with his bright TV lights and bewildering questions, Graveline is so put off his stroke that he pushes the liposuction tube (the cannula) beyond the narrow band of fat he’s meant to be sucking out and deep into Reynaldo’s gut, sucking out one by one all his vital organs and killing him (chapter 30). Gruesome.

Clothes

There’s something deeply wrong and corrupt about a worldview which happily accepts the most violent incidents, corruption and casual murder, but is obsessed with identifying the exact labels and brands of what people are wearing:

  • [Flemm] was wearing another pair of khaki Banana Republic trousers and a baggy denim shirt. He smelled like a bucket of Brut. (p.50)
  • [Tina] wore a baggy Jimmy Buffett T-shirt over a cranberry bikini bottom. (p.86)
  • [Stranahan] was barefoot, wearing cutoff jeans and a khaki short-sleeved shirt, open to the chest. (p.87)
  • [Chloe] was wearing a ridiculous white sailor’s suit from Lord and Taylor’s. (p.94)
  • [Al García]’s J.C. Penney coat jacket was slung over one arm, and his shiny necktie was loosened half-way down his chest. (p.101)
  • Kipper Garth wore grey European-cut slacks, a silk paisley necktie and a bone-coloured shirt, the French cuffs rolled up to his elbows. (p.114)
  • Stranahan had worn a pressed pair of jeans, a charcoal sports jacket, brown loafers and no socks. (p.132)
  • He saw a god-looking woman in a white cottony top and tan safaris shorts hop off the shrimp boat… (p.149)
  • The man wore blue jeans, boots and a flannel shirt with the left sleeve cut away. (p.167)
  • Chemo was dressed in a tan safari outfit… (p.183)
  • She wore a red windbreaker, baggy knit pants, and high-top tennis shoes. (p.227)
  • Christina wore a tartan flannel shirt, baggy grey workout trousers, and running shoes. Stranahan worse jeans, sneakers, and a University of Miami sweatshirt. (p.248)
  • Rudy Graveline was wearing a tan sports jacket and dark, loose-fitting pants and a brown striped necktie (p.278).
  • [Marie Nordstrom] wore electric-blue Lycra body tights, and her ash-blond hair was pulled back in a girlish ponytail. (p.310)
  • [Rudy] was wearing Topsiders, tan cotton pants, and a Bean crewneck pullover. (p.351)
  • [Stranahan] wore blue jeans, deck shoes, a pale yellow cotton shirt and a poplin windbreaker. (p.353)

Odd that so many modern American writers are so obsessively precise about clothes and brands and so utterly indifferent to the value of human life.

Anti-Florida

Amazing that a man with such a bilious view of his own home state could keep a job on its premiere newspaper and in some sense become its literary representative, despite the outrageous examples of corruption he chronicles in his novels, and the throwaway references to the ubiquity of corruption and graft at every level of Florida life.

One of the wondrous things about Florida, Rudy Graveline thought as he chewed on a jumbo shrimp, was the climate of unabashed corruption; there was absolutely no trouble from which money could not extricate you. (p.108)

When some of his maltreated patients organise a suit against Graveline, he simply buys the hearing officer a shiny new Volvo station wagon and all charges are dropped. Not only that, but:

The board immediately reinstated Rudy’s licence and sealed all the records from the public and the press – thus honouring the long-held philosophy of Florida’s medical establishment that the last persons who need to know about a doctor’s incompetence are his patients. (p.109)

All the commissioners have off-the-record accounts in the Cayman Islands to stash the earnings they make through corruption and graft (p.110).

Commissioner Roberto Pepsical… found himself surrounded by ruthless and untrustworthy people – nobody played a straight game any more. In Miami corruption had become a sport for the masses. (p.228)

Miami, home of corruption and coke dealers.

Half the new Miami skyscrapers had been built with coke money and existed largely as an inside joke, a mirage to please the banks and the Internal Revenue Service and the chamber of commerce. Everyone liked to say that the skyline was a tribute to local prosperity but Stranahan recognised it as a tribute to the anonymous genius of Latin American money launderers. (p.316)

And crooked lawyers:

‘But lawyers aren’t supposed to solicit.’
‘Al, this is Miami.’ (p.324)

And all-purpose criminals:

‘Neighbourhoods like this are hard to find, Mick. You know, we’ve only been burglarised twice in  four years. That’s not bad for Miami.’ (p. 322)

Hiaasen does have a few good characters: Luis Córdova, a young marine patrolman who regularly calls by Stranahan’s house, in his boat, warns him if trouble is coming. The old black guy, Cartwright, who Stranahan helped in a battle with crooked property developers back in the day (is there any other kind?).

And he creates a heavily symbolic figure, Timmy Gavigan, a retired cop who is lying in a hospital bed far gone with terminal cancer. He’s an old friend of Stranahan’s who visits him several times during the course of the novel, as does the TV producer Christina Marks as part of her investigations.

Gavigan is pretty obviously designed as a symbol of old-school Integrity and so it is no accident that he’s wasting away and dying, symbol of an old world of integrity and decency being drowned in a sea of scumbags.

There’s a scene where Gavigan is in bed, barely able to breathe, being visited by compassionate Christina, when the two piggish and corrupt cops, Joe Salazar and John Murdock, barge in and try to bully Gavigan into incriminating Stranahan, while she tries to moderate their behaviour. Worthy old symbol of honour harassed to the grave by swinish corruption.

Against this one good man is set a panorama of everyday corruption at every level and in every area of Florida life. And the terrible thing about corruption is it’s so dynamic, it has so much energy.

The county had hired [George Graveline, Rudy’s tree-trimming brother] to rip out the old trees to make space for some tennis courts. Before long a restaurant would spring up next to the tennis courts and, after that, a major resort hotel. The people who would run the restaurant and the hotel would receive the use of the public property for practically nothing, thanks to their pals on the county commission. In return, the commissioners would receive a certain secret percentage of the refreshment concessions. And the voters would have brand-new tennis courts, whether they wanted them or not. (p.275)

Anti-American

From time to time, Hiaasen suggests it’s not just Florida, that the vista of unreasoned violence and chaos which he so furiously depicts extends out across the entire United States. For example, he jokily refers to the occurrence of the ‘regular’ mass shooting in Oklahoma as if mass shootings are now a boringly familiar occurrence; or jokes that a shootout and fight at Chemo’s New York apartment (when Chemo finds Stranahan has broken in and is going through his things) barely even makes the papers in that ultra-violent city (p.223).

There are numerous other minor, casual incidents which highlight the casual sexism, violence and cynicism of American culture. At the start of the novel Mick boats it back to the house on stilts to discover that while he’s away a speedboat of young people has deposited their young women to sunbathe (nude) on his decking while the guys goof around and waterski on the boat.

Mick is polite to the women, who quickly cover up and is only a little disconcerted when one of them, Tina, strolls into his shack and asks him to assess her naked body. Why? Because she wants to have plastic surgery to perfect it.

But the point of the story is that when the young men return to the shack, Tina’s boyfriend, Richie, is jealous when he sees her walking out of the shack naked and accompanied by Mick. Mick courteously ferries the girls out to their boyfriends’ boat and has turned and is making away, when he hears and sees Tina’s boyfriend start badmouthing her and then smacking her. Mick turns his skiff round, jumps onto the speedboat and beats the crap out of the boyfriend.

I take the point that Mick is a beacon of chivalry in a sleazy shitty world but… not really. He himself is liable to violent rages and violent attacks. Everyone is. It comes over as a very, very violent place.

Even without the corruption, violence and killing, Hiaasen often appears to simply not like Americans, especially the chavvy scum he sees visiting the Sunshine State.

[Maggie and Chemo] got in line at the Pan Am counter, surrounded by a typical Miami-bound contingent – old geezers with tubas for sinuses; shiny young hustlers in thin gold chains; huge hollow-eyes families that looked like they’d staggered out of a Sally Struthers telethon. (p.221)

Bands

An entertainingly comic thread running through the book is the way that Chemo, in between his jaunts as a hit man, has a crappy job as a bouncer at a low-rent venue called the Gay Bidet, which hosts a succession of ‘punk’ rock bands, such as the Fudge Packers (p.163), Cathy and the Catheters, Queen of Slut Rock (p.236) or the Fabulous Foreskins (p.302).

I found these band names, and the fights which generally break out at the gigs between neo-Nazis and rednecks or rival gangs of skinheads, much more realistic and fun than any of the laboured, would-be ‘cool’ band references in the rock-obsessed novels of William Gibson.

Mind you, Hiaasen’s rock references are nearly as dated as Gibson’s. As a test to see whether they’re going to be compatible, Stranahan routinely asks his girlfriends to name the Beatles. Most fail. After sleeping with young Tina (who he rescued from her violent boyfriend and who, later, comes back to see him alone) a couple of times, Mick realises she’s far too young for him and, when she fails to name all the members of the Beatles, gives that as a reason for dumping her.

Whereas when he eases into an affair with the investigative TV producer, Christina Marks, taking her nude swimming at midnight etc, the fact that she not only names all four members of the Beatles but throws in early member Pete Best, jokily cements the affair (p.248). 1989 it was published, nearly 20 years after the Beatles split up. Hiaasen comes over as a textbook example of ageing Dad Rock.

Human relationships

I know it’s meant to be grotesquely extreme and fiercely satirical, but Hiaasen’s novels confirm the sense I get whenever I watch modern American TV or read about American novels or movies, which is that – Americans have stopped being able to relate to each other as decent human beings.

Everyone in Hiaasen’s fiction uses everyone else instrumentally, as tools to an end: the bad guys egregiously so, but even the good guys like Brian Keyes or R.J. Decker (in the previous two novels) or Mick Stranahan in this one, they also manipulate and use the other human beings around them, lying, deceiving and manipulating as necessary to achieve their goals.

There’s no-one in these novels who isn’t a crook or a user, in the sense of someone who takes advantage of or exploits others. The relentlessly bilious cynicism can, eventually, become a little wearing. And so, despite the presence of many comical and farcical moments, the book somehow lacks the joi de satiriser of the first two novels, the sprezzatura. The portrait of a society mired in corruption and casual violence is too persuasive and too depressing.

The name’s Bond

In my reviews of William Gibson’s novels I pointed out the slight but detectable ‘anxiety of influence’ they evince, the text’s feeling that, at key moments, it is veering very close to James Bond territory (Machiavellian mastermind, handsome omni-competent hero, dishy woman, state-of-the-art gadgets) and how Gibson tries to address and defuse the perception with a couple of jokey references to Bond movies or villains.

Interestingly, Hiaasen does the same. Sooner or later one or other of the characters realises the all-action adventure they’re in is coming perilously close to Bond territory, and Hiaasen anticipates the reader twigging this by making his own jokey reference. In the previous novel the slippery vamp, Lanie, tells the hero that her favourite Bond is Sean Connery. Here, the reference comes when Mick’s ex-wife Chloe is goading Chemo:

‘Have you got your plan?’ Chloe asked
‘The less you know, the better.’
‘Oh, pardon me,’ she said caustically. ‘Pardon me, Mr James Fucking Bond.’ (p.95)

Soon afterwards Chemo chucks the anchor at Chloe which drags her to the bottom of the lagoon and drowns her. Don’t mention Bond. That said the book contains more references to the TV series Miami Vice which was undergoing an explosion of popularity at the time and, maybe, threatened to steal Hiaasen’s thunder. In America, competition, for everything, is always fierce (pages 307, 348).

Recurring characters

Mick Stranahan returns to feature in Hiaasen’s 2004 novel Skinny Dip.

Chemo returns in the 2010 novel, Star Island.


Credit

Skin Tight by Carl Hiaasen was published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in 1989. All references are to the 1991 Pan paperback edition.

Carl Hiaasen reviews

Dr. Brodie’s Report by Jorge Luis Borges (1970)

In Buenos Aires anything can be fixed; someone always has a friend.

Paratexts

Borges was world famous and getting old by the time he came to compose the 11 short stories collected in Dr Brodie’s Report. They had all been recently published, either in 1969 or 1970 just as the author, born in 1899, was turning 70.

The book has a little gaggle of paratexts, namely a foreword, a preface and an afterword, in which Borges tells us that these stories were the first he’d written since 1953, after a 16 year hiatus in fiction writing – and it really shows in the drastic change of style and subject matter the stories in this collection exhibit compared with the metaphysical and brainteasing ficciones from the 1940s which made him famous.

Surprisingly, of all the authors in the world, Borges names Rudyard Kipling as his model for these stories, and not the later, very compressed Kipling, but the bright young thing of the 1888 collection Plain Tales From The Hills. (As it happens, I have read and reviewed all Rudyard Kipling’s many short stories so can vouch for the difference between the early and later Kipling.) Borges rather artlessly tells us he has tried to write stories in the same straightforward manner as early Kipling.

He calls the art of writing ‘mysterious’ (‘writing is nothing more than a guided dream’) and goes on to describe how a beginning or end of a story will come to him as he walks down a street in Buenos Aires but he has to wait for the middle to appear. More often than not, if he forces it, those are the weakest bits.

He mentions his politics (controversially right-wing) but emphasises that personal opinion is trivial and superficial; the process of creation taps into unconscious forces which are much deeper (a rule which could also be applied to Kipling’s highly controversial work).

Borges was 70 when the book was published. He tells us he has given up ‘the surprises inherent in a baroque style as well as the surprises that lead to an unforeseen ending. I have, in short, preferred to satisfy an expectation rather than to provide a startling shock.’ This is presumably what he means when he calls the stories ‘straightforward’, but still, none of these paratexts really prepare us for the complete change in subject matter, tone and style from his classic ficciones of the 1940s and 50s.

Instead of those weird and wonderful fantasies which play with mind-bending ideas of space and time and infinity and reality, these 11 stories are brutally realistic, sometimes macabre tales, of Buenos Aires hoodlums and gaucho lowlifes or, as he puts it in The Intruder:

a brief and tragic mirror of the character of those hard-bitten men living on the edge of Buenos Aires before the turn of the century

They are hard tales of tough slum dwellers without any of the bookish trappings, the scholarly references or the playful whimsy of his classic ficciones.

The stories

1. The Gospel According to Mark

In March 1928 failed medical student Baltasar Espinosa, a lifelong townie, is invited by his cousin to go and stay on a ranch, La Colorada ranch, in the southern part of the township of Junín. During his stay the local river floods and his cousin is called away on business. Baltasar is left with the three illiterate servant family, the Gutres. Illiterate and uneducated, They are in awe of him, treat him with great respect which turns to awe when he starts, out of pure boredom, every evening after dinner reading to them from a big old traditional Bible in the house. There is banging and nailing, there are mysterious sounds. One morning the simple-minded Gutres adults double check with Espinosa that Jesus let himself be crucified to save all humanity and then… seize Baltasar and take him out back of the house to crucify him on the cross they’ve been building!

Well, this story lacks all the characteristics of the classic Borges ficciones, the saturation with books, bookish references and high-flying metaphysical and philosophical ideas. And it certainly does bear a resemblance to the Rudyard Kipling who wrote a number of hauntingly macabre and horrifying stories. I liked it very much.

2. The Unworthy Friend

The narrator remembers when he used to visit the Buenos Aires Bookstore run by Santiago Fischbein. He remembers Fischbein once telling him an anecdote about when he himself was young, barely more than 15. He was taken into the circle of a local tough guy named Francisco Ferrari. He hero worshipped this tall Latin-looking cool dude who dressed all in black and was amazed when, after bumping into him a few times, Ferrari asked him to hang out in the saloon with all the other members of his gang. Eventually he is invited to take part in a break-in to a factory and told to be the lookout. The morning of the planned break-in he took a long tram journey downtown and reported the whole thing to the police, who were initially sceptical. But that night, when the gang are inside the warehouse, the police arrive quietly, having tethered their horses further down the road (their horses?), the narrator lets them slip into the warehouse without raising the alarm, then hears four shots. It wasn’t a gunfight, as he knows Ferrari and co. didn’t have guns. When the cops drag Ferrari’s corpse and that of his older mentor, don Eliseo Amaro, out of the building, the narrator realises it wasn’t an arrest, more an assassination, the settling of old scores.

3. The Duel

The very understated, barely detectable rivalry between two upper-class Argentine ladies, Clara Glencairn de Figueroa and Marta Pizarro, who both decided to become painters and remained friends despite their rivalry.

4. The End of the Duel

This is a grim, macabre and often barely understandable tale about two hardened gauchos, Manuel Cardoso and Carmen Silveira, who farm neighbouring land and, for any one of a number of reasons, become hardened rivals and enemies.

Until a civil war breaks out in 1870 and they fight for a while on one or other of the sides (it’s the reds versus the whites and, on a first reading, I became confused about who was who and why), the point being they are fellow soldiers on the same side, though their hatred continues unabated.

Anyway, the two rivals are on the white side, which loses a battle to the reds, and are both captured. The red officer in charge is one Captain Juan Patricio Nolan, who has a reputation as a prankster, and now he comes up with a weird and sadistic ‘prank’, which is to set them to run a race after they have had their throats cut. Got that? So they line up with all the red soldiers and white prisoners watching, then a couple of red soldiers step across and cut both their throats as Nolan tells them to start their race. Cardoso and Silveira run a handful of paces before both falling to the ground and bleeding their last into the dry dirt.

You call that a ‘prank’?

5. Rosendo’s Tale

Way back in his 1935 collection, A Universal History of Infamy, had included one ‘realistic’ story of Buenos Aires lowlife hoodlums, or gang members (insofar as that term applied to 1920s criminal gangs). That story was told through the point of view of a gang member who idolises their tough leader, Rosendo Juárez, and describes the puzzling events of a night when another hoodlum, nicknamed ‘the Butcher’, burst into a dance the gang were holding, and confronted their macho leader, Rosendo Juárez who, inexplicably, dropped his knife, failed to rise to the bait, and simply walked away.

Now, 35 years later, Borges publishes a story which gives Rosendo’s side of the story in a first-person narrative. In a nutshell, after a life devoted to becoming chief hard man and head of a gang, when he was confronted by the blustering bullying Butcher, he had a revelation, he realised he was looking in a mirror, he realised what he had become – and was disgusted, realised his whole life was revolting, dropped his knife, and simply walked out into the night never to come back.

Then something happened that nobody ever understood. In that big loudmouth I saw myself, the same as in a mirror, and it made me feel ashamed. I wasn’t scared; maybe if I’d been scared I’d have fought with him. I just stood there as if nothing happened.

The real puzzle here is why Borges bothered. To put it another way, it’s bewildering to think that Argentina’s literary world gave a damn about the earlier, quite difficult-to-follow, hard-to-believe and ultimately trivial story, to such an extent that everyone, including Borges, thought it worthwhile writing this sequel or alternative view.

6. The Intruder

Two lowlife brothers, Eduardo and Cristián Nilsen are hard-drinking, tall, red-haired stingy brawlers. One day Cristián brings home Juliana Burgos and, to cut a tedious story short, both brothers fall in love with her. Eventually, Cristián lets his brother ‘use’ her and they live as a threesome. But the brothers can’t help getting jealous of each other so one day sell her to a brothel. But then Cristián catches Eduardo slipping off some nights to the brothel to carry on boffing Juliana, so they buy her back and bring her home to be their servant and sex slave. Eventually Cristián murders Juliana and the brothers bury her body out in the country.

This story didn’t put me off Borges, a writer can write whatever they want, but it put me off the tone and feel of this book, and it put me off Argentinians a bit.

7. The Meeting

The case of nervous, dark-skinned Maneco Uriarte and tall, white-haired Duncan took place around 1910. The narrator is nine or ten and his cousin Lafinur takes him to a barbecue at a country house called The Laurels. There’s a fine barbecue, then an evening drinking which settles into a game of poker while the boy narrator goes exploring the big, strange house. The owner of the house comes across him and is just showing him his fine collection of knives (Argentinians and their knives).

But the sound of shouting interrupts him and takes them back to the main room where the poker players have got drunk and Uriarte is shouting that Duncan cheated him. The confrontation escalates, someone points out there’s a cabinet of ornamental knives nearby, the select one each and go out into the garden followed the the rest of the men who form a ring while the pair tentatively and then in earnest begin a knife fight which ends with Uriarte plunging his knife into the chest of Duncan who falls to the floor and dies.

Then there’s a little bit of the old Borges magic, a little bit of voodoo thinking. Years later Borges describes his memory to a chief of police who is able to identify the knives as having belonged, before this incident, to two famous rivals, almost as if… as if it was the knives who were destined to fight, not the men:

I began to wonder whether it was Maneco Uriarte who killed Duncan or whether in some uncanny way it could have been the weapons, not the men, which fought. I still remember how Uriarte’s hand shook when he first gripped his knife, and the same with Duncan, as though the knives were coming awake after a long sleep side by side in the cabinet.

8. Juan Muraña

For years Borges liked to tell people he grew up in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Palermo, famous for knife fights and guitar playing (Argentines and their knives!). He sounds like an educated upper-middle-class kid who has a pathetic hero worship of street gangsters and hoodlums.

On a train journey he bumps into an old schoolfriend, Emilio Trápani, who has read his book about the poet Evaristo Carriego in which, apparently, ‘you’re talking about hoodlums all the time.’ Well, says, Trápani, he’ll tell him a story about a real hoodlum. Trápani tells him his mother’s sister married Muraña.

Of all the men around Palermo famous for handling a knife way back in the nineties, the one with the widest reputation was Muraña.

Knives knives knives. Maybe the book should have been titled Knife Fighters of Buenos Aires. And indeed this story is about yet another knife murder.

Trápani was a boy and barely understood his mother’s anxiety that they were about to be evicted from their apartment by the Italian landlord. His mad old aunt, who had been married to the notorious knifeman, Muraña, lives up in the attic. One day his mother takes Trápani to see the landlord, but they arrive to find a crowd and that he’s been stabbed to death. Only weeks later does the boy Trápani venture up into the attic where his mother’s mad widowed sister lives and from her ravings, suddenly realises that she did it but she blames it on her late husband’s knife. In fact she identifies the knife with her husband, and holds it out to the boy saying:

“Here he is. I knew he would never forsake me. In the whole world there hasn’t been another man like him. He didn’t let the gringo get out a word.”

And then a two-penny, ha-penny payoff.

Juan Muraña walked the familiar streets of my boyhood; I may have seen him many times, unawares. He was a man who knew what all men come to know, a man who tasted death and was afterward a knife, and is now the memory of a knife, and will tomorrow be oblivion—the oblivion that awaits us all.

The story itself is a bit spooky but these final lines are, I think, bathetic (meaning: ‘producing an unintentional effect of anticlimax’) because they are so entirely conventional and, almost, sentimental.

9. The Elder Lady

An extended memoir of a rather grand though not particularly well-educated old lady, Mrs. María Justina Rubio de Jáuregui, daughter of a hero Colonel Rubio of the civil war, who lived with her memories of a gladsome girlhood and a homestead with acres of land but, by the time Borges knew her, was restricted to a room in a suburban apartment. On her hundredth birthday, in 1941, there’s a big party, a minister attends, journalists cover it, there are grand speeches and champagne. That night she took to her bed and over the following days, calmly and dignifiedly died.

In the Afterword Borges frankly admits this was a portrait of a great-aunt of his.

10. Guayaquil

This story feels the closest to one of the ficciones in that it is spooky and eerie and takes place in the world of scholarship and academia.

Some letters have been discovered written by the great Simon Bolivar, Liberator of the continent of South America, among the papers of the scholar Dr. José Avellanos of the (fictional) nation of Estado Occidental. Most of them are run-of-the-mill except for one of them which gives Bolivar’s side of the momentous encounter between himself and the Argentine national hero General San Martín, at a place called Guayaquil, in which General San Martín renounced political ambition and left the destiny of South America in the hands of Bolívar.

The discoverer of the letters, Avellanos’s grandson Dr. Ricardo Avellanos, opposes his own country’s government so put the letters up for auction and the Argentine ambassador won them for the glory of his nation. The narrator is a reputable historian, who secures the backing of the National Academy of History and the relevant Ministry to be the official representative of Argentine who will fly to Estado Occidental to take receipt of the letters and then write the definitive scholarly paper about them.

However, the narrative opens soon after the narrator is surprised to be visited at his bookish home by another historian, Dr Zimmerman, who has been proposed by the University of Cordoba. Zimmerman is a refugee, having fled the Nazi takeover of Prague.

The meat of the story is that through a strange and obscure process which the narrator barely detects and cannot define, Zimmerman, although mild and retiring and perfectly polite, somehow manages to – not to persuade, that would be too explicit – to somehow manoeuvre the narrator into abandoning his journey and to sign a letter authorising Dr Zimmerman to fly to Estado Occidental as Argentina’s official representative.

There is mention of the Golem, the legend of the animated anthropomorphic being, which was defined in a novel by an author from Prague. For a flickering second we wonder if Borges is implying that… Zimmerman is the golem. But no…

At several other points Zimmerman invokes the name of Arthur Schopenhauer, the philosopher who said the world as we know it is a product of our own unrelenting drives or Will. So… is he a demonstration of the power of this Will? Without violence, without threats, without any argument or even attempts at persuasion, he simply gets the narrator to do what he wants him to.

Or, (as Borges states in the Afterword) ‘if the reader is in a magical mood’, then the encounter of the two historians could be envisioned as a re-enactment of the confrontation between the two generals which the famous letter describes, in which General Martin inexplicably renounces his rights or ambitions to political power and leaves the way open for Bolivar. As the narrator finds himself inexplicably renouncing his scholarly ambition and leaving the path open for Zimmerman.

This is the most classically Borgesian of these stories, the most complex and subtle and, for that reason, haunting, but it echoes the theme of some of the other stories, which is the idea that history repeats itself, or patterns of human behaviour repeat themselves, living on after their original protagonists are long gone.

11. Doctor Brodie’s Report

This is more like ficciones Borges. The narrator finds a manuscript tucked away in an old edition of Lane’s translation of the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (London, 1839). He identifies the manuscript as written by a David Brodie, D.D., a Scottish missionary who worked first in central Africa and then transferred to the jungles of the Amazon.

It is a fragment which starts in the middle of his description of the super-primitive men he has found himself among, and who he calls the Yahoos. Obviously this name refers to the apemen found in Book 4 of Gulliver’s Travels and the text’s method of systematically describing the Yahoos’ appearance, food, and their disgusting concept of royalty reminded me of H.G. Wells systematically describing the Eloi and the Morlochs or the society of the Selenites on the moon, or the Country of the Blind.

I have spoken of the queen and the king; I shall speak now of the witch doctors.

The point being that, even though many of the details are disgusting, the authorial tone is warm and reassuring, like being in an Edwardian wood-panelled room smelling of pipe tobacco, sitting in an ancient and absurdly comfortable sofa, listening to a beloved uncle telling a story.

And so the manuscript goes on, describing the Yahoos’ customs, their king and queen and four witch doctors and their amazingly primitive language. But the story lifts off when Brodie speculates that they might not always have been in this state of extreme degradation, but may be the wrecks of a degenerate nation, a hunch he thinks is confirmed by inscriptions he finds on the heights of the plateau adjoining the malarial swamps where the Yahoos now choose to live.

He describes his escape from the land of the Yahoos and journey to a settlement of blacks, who had a Catholic missionary, who nursed Brodie back to health. Many months later he found himself back in Glasgow where he composed this narrative and is still haunted by visions of the utter collapse of humanity which the Yahoos represent.

Algunos pensamientos

I suppose one way of thinking about the vast difference between Borges’s metaphysical ficciones of the 1940s and these ‘straightforward’ memories of knife fighters and crooks is that the ficciones represent Europe, are an extension of the bookish culture of European civilisation, while these stories are much more monotone, mostly realist accounts of Buenos Aires slums and lowlifes; except, that is, for The Gospel According to Mark which appals with its Edgar Allen Poe macabre-ness, and the final two stories which echo some of the metaphysical magic of the ficciones:

[As to the witch doctors] they are four, this number being the largest that their arithmetic spans. On their fingers they count thus: one, two, three, four, many. Infinity begins at the thumb…

This is the Borges of the 1940s, most of the other stories not at all. They’re not bad, but…

Eternal recurrence

One strong theme emerges from the four or five strongest stories, which is the idea that history repeats itself, or patterns of human behaviour repeat themselves, living on after their original protagonists are long gone.

Thus in The Gospel According to Mark the crucifixion is re-enacted by illiterate peasants who barely understand its context or significance.

The Meeting and Juan Muraña are closely linked in the way that the knives at the centre of each story in some sense ’embody’ the characters of their previous owners, as if the knives are destined to carry on acting out certain types of knife-ish behaviour.

In an oblique way The Elder Lady is about a person who has lived on into her own afterlife, a symbol of events which are almost forgotten and have almost lost their meaning.

In Guayaquil Borges himself suggests that the two present-day historians of the story may be unknowingly re-enacting the drama of confrontation and renunciation first lived out by the two generals whose history they are studying.

And in the chilling Doctor Brodie’s Report the narrator suggests that even in their state of complete immiseration and illiterate, inarticulate degradation, the the people he calls the Yahoos might still retain echoes of social organisation, namely institutions such as the monarchy, a language of sorts, priests or witch doctors, poets and belief in an afterlife. As if the structures of civilisation echo and re-echo through the ages, no matter how degraded and meaningless they have become.

Naming the collection after this story and placing it at the end leaves a quite misleading aftertaste of Wellsian science fiction, of Conan Doyle wonderment, of Edwardian English adventure yarns quite utterly different from the very Latin American settings of almost all the other stories.


Related links

Borges reviews

Molloy by Samuel Beckett – part two (1950)

Molloy is the first of a trilogy of novels which continued with Malone Dies and The Unnamable, and quickly came to be referred to as The Beckett Trilogy. That’s the title of the old Picador paperback edition I bought in the late 1970s and which I read this in.

Beckett wrote Molloy in French and it was first published by Paris-based Les Éditions de Minuit in 1951. The English translation, published in 1955, is by Beckett and Patrick Bowles.

Molloy is in two parts of equal length. I’ve reviewed part one. This review is of part two, the long first-person narrative by Jacques Moran.

Plot summary

This second part of the book features something a lot more resembling a ‘plot’ i.e. a sequence of events which make sense in themselves and seem to occur to identifiable characters, than part one did.

It’s basically a picaresque i.e. a journey with adventures. The first-person narrator, Jacques Moran, is still a bit nuts, a bit obsessive compulsive, but it feels like, for the first time in a Beckett text, there are recognisable facts, characters, and a narrative.

This is immediately visible from the way that part two is divided into paragraphs, thank God, which makes it ten times easier to read and understand than the eighty-page-long solid block of prose which makes up part one.

Part two starts with the words:

It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows.

And goes on to paint the scene of the narrator in his quiet home, at night, with the lamp trimmed, starting to write his ‘report’ of events.

Moran tells us that, when the story begins he was at home one Sunday when another ‘agent’, Gaber, visits him. They don’t like each other. Moran tells his son – also called Jacques – to run and fetch a beer for the two adults. Over this beer Gaber gives him an ‘assignment’ which is to do with a certain Molloy. Moran makes clear his profession is to do with surveillance and prying.

Right from the start the narrator treats this event as if it marks a watershed in his life, as if it doomed him, as if nothing was ever the same again – a standard thriller trope designed, of course, makes the reader want to find out why.

But then… Moran’s behaviour becomes stranger and more obsessive. He obsesses about attending mass that Sunday, having missed it because of Gaber’s visit. He packs his son off to the mass but then doesn’t believe him when he comes back saying he attended. He goes to see Father Ambrose to ask for a private communion to make up for the mass he missed that morning and there is some absurdist dialogue, but embedded in the … how to describe it… the hyper-self-conscious, solipsistic, auto-obsessive, overself-awareness which is so crushingly Beckettian, conveyed in one great heavy granite block of prose.

Father Ambrose came in, rubbing his eyes. I disturb you. Father, I said. He clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth, protestingly. I shall not describe our attitudes, characteristic his of him, mine of me. He offered me a cigar which I accepted with good grace and put in my pocket, between my fountain-pen and my propelling-pencil. He flattered himself, Father Ambrose, with being a man of the world and knowing its ways, he who never smoked. And everyone said he was most broad. I asked him if he had noticed my son at the last mass. Certainly, he said, we even spoke together. I must have looked surprised. Yes, he said, not seeing you at your place, in the front row, I feared you were ill. So I called for the dear child, who reassured me. A most untimely visitor, I said, whom I could not shake off in time. So your son explained to me, he said. He added. But let us sit down, we have no train to catch. He laughed and sat down, hitching up his heavy cassock. May I offer you a little glass of something? he said. I was in a quandary. Had Jacques let slip an allusion to the lager. He was quite capable of it. I came to ask you a favour, I said. Granted, he said. We observed each other. It’s this, I said, Sunday for me without the Body and Blood is like — . He raised his hand. Above all no profane comparisons, he said. Perhaps he was thinking of the kiss without a moustache or beef without mustard. I dislike being interrupted. I sulked. Say no more, he said, a wink is as good as a nod, you want communion. I bowed my head. It’s a little unusual, he said. I wondered if he had fed. I knew he was given to prolonged fasts, by way of mortification certainly, and then because his doctor advised it. Thus he killed two birds with one stone. Not a word to a soul, he said, let it remain between us and — . He broke off, raising a finger, and his eyes, to the ceiling. Heavens, he said, what is that stain? I looked in turn at the ceiling. Damp, I said. Tut tut, he said, how annoying. The words tut tut seemed to me the maddest I had heard. There are times, he said, when one feels like weeping. He got up. I’ll go and get my kit, he said. He called that his kit. Alone, my hands clasped until it seemed my knuckles would crack.

There is a lot of ‘business’ in Moran’s house, with his ancient serving woman, Martha, who cordially hates him and cooks inedible meals which he insults, and then with his son.

In a deliberately anti-romantic and plain weird scene, the narrator describes in some detail administering an enema to his son, making him lie on the floor of the toilet with his bum in the air to keep the hot water in his bowels as long as possible, before giving in and having a poo. They both examine the stringy waste which has exited his anus into the toilet bowl. Maybe some readers find this ‘darkly funny’. I would suggest it is intended to be – and is – revolting.

This is a bullet point summary of the plot:

  • Gaber visits Moran at home in his garden (p.86 of the Picador volume of The Beckett Trilogy)
  • Gaber informs him that the mission is to find Molloy and that his son will go with him (p.87)
  • Gaber leaves and Moran worries that the beer he’s just shared with him (a Wallenstein) renders him ineligible for Mass, and he always takes Mass on a Sunday (p.90)
  • absurdly, Moran’s first thoughts are for the vehicle he will set out on, and he spends some time considering his autocycle (p.90)
  • Moran goes to visit Father Ambrose who, after some chat, administers Mass from his ‘kit’ (p.92)
  • they discuss the health of Moran’s grey hen who will neither brood nor lay; Father Ambrose suggests dietary changes (p.93)
  • Moran returns home to eat the disappointing stew his servant, Martha, has prepared then goes lies down in his room and is cross when his son enters without knocking – he might have caught him masturbating which Moran, apparently, does quite often (p.94)
  • his son complains about having to go on a mission because his tooth aches and he wants to get it seen to by Dr Py (p.95); already it’s plain that Moran hates his son and loses no opportunity to shout at him, criticise him and so on

It’s noticeable how the quality of the narrative deteriorates. The opening pages contained lots of details calmly observed and maybe it is a parody of a conventional novel. By this stage, however, it has sunk into the characteristic sludge of unknowing, the murky repetitions and the know-nothing mood of the typical Beckettian Alzheimer’s patient.

What I assert, deny, question, in the present, I still can. But mostly I shall use the various tenses of the past. For mostly I do not know, it is perhaps no longer so, it is too soon to know, I simply do not know, perhaps shall never know

This is Beckett’s schtick, his trademark sound, his brand, the one central idea of unknowability and confusion which he has brought to a peak of perfection on the previous novels and stories, and will go on to recycle ten thousand ways through the rest of his career.

  • he tells us about his neighbours, the Elsner sisters, their cook Hannah and their dog Zulu (p.96)
  • Moran reflects on the relationship between the ‘messengers’ and the ‘agents’ in his organisation, a page of almost complete irrelevance (p.98)
  • we learn the chief of the organisation which he and Gaber belongs to is named Youdi (p.99)
  • he makes a huge fuss about his son’s stamp albums; his son won’t go anywhere without his prize stamps and Moran had told him he could only take his second best and smaller stamp album, so Moran thinks he catches his son transferring his favourite stamps from his big stamp album to the smaller one which Moran has told him he can bring with – there’s three pages of this, a prime example of Beckett’s studied inconsequentiality and, within the story, of Moran’s bullying of the boy. If you think bullying teenage children is fun, this is the book for you (p.100)
  • writers spend a lot of time by themselves, in bedrooms, staring at blank pages or blank computer screens; a certain kind of writer becomes obsessed by the functioning of their own bodies, and minute self-observance. Beckett is their patron saint. Having bullied his son he has a few hours to kill before dinner and gets into bed, describing the unfolding of his thoughts and sensations in a kind of directionless noodling (p.101)

I still had a few hours left before dinner. I decided to make the most of them. Because after dinner I drowse. I took off my coat and shoes, opened my trousers and got in between the sheets. It is lying down, in the warmth, in the gloom, that I best pierce the outer turmoil’s veil, discern my quarry, sense what course to follow, find peace in another’s ludicrous distress. Far from the world, its clamours, frenzies, bitterness and dingy light, I pass judgement on it and on those, like me, who are plunged in it beyond recall, and on him who has need of me to be delivered,
who cannot deliver myself. All is dark, but with that simple darkness that follows like a balm upon the great dismemberings. From their places masses move, stark as laws. Masses of what? One does not ask. There somewhere man is too, vast conglomerate of all of nature’s kingdoms, as lonely and as bound. And in that block
the prey is lodged and thinks himself a being apart. Anyone would serve. But I am paid to seek. I arrive, he comes away. His life has been nothing but a waiting for this, to see himself preferred, to fancy himself damned, blessed, to fancy himself everyman, above all others. Warmth, gloom, smells of my bed, such is the effect they sometimes have on me. I get up, go out, and everything is changed. The blood drains from my head, the noise of things bursting, merging, avoiding one another, assails me on all sides, my eyes search in vain for two things alike, each pinpoint of skin screams a different message, I drown in the spray of phenomena. It is at the mercy of these sensations, which happily I know to be illusory, that I have to live and work. It is thanks to them I find myself a meaning. So he whom a sudden pain awakes. He stiffens, ceases to breathe, waits, says. It’s a bad dream, or, it’s
a touch of neuralgia, breathes again, sleeps again, still trembling. And yet it is not unpleasant, before setting to work, to steep oneself again in this slow and massive world, where all things move with the ponderous sullenness of oxen, patiently through the immemorial ways, and where of course no investigation would be possible. But on this occasion, I repeat, on this occasion, my reasons for doing so were I trust more serious and imputable less to pleasure than to business. For it was only by transferring it to this atmosphere, how shall I say, of finality without end, why not, that I could venture to consider the work I had on hand. For where Molloy could not be, nor Moran either for that matter, there Moran could bend over Molloy. And though this examination prove unprofitable and of no utility for the execution of my orders, I should nevertheless have established a kind of connection, and one not necessarily false. For the falsity of the terms does not necessarily imply that of the relation, so far as I know. And not only this, but I should have invested my man, from the outset, with the air of a fabulous being, which something told me could not fail to help me later on. So I took off my coat and my shoes, I opened my trousers and I slipped in between the sheets, with an easy conscience, knowing only too well what I was doing.

  • Molloy is, of course, the name of the narrator of part one of the book, who it is named after – Moran has only a shaky grasp of Molloy’s name and mistakenly calls him Mollose or Mellose (p.103)
  • he has a hallucinatory vision of Molloy as a vague and menacing shape (p.105); identities are fluid and multiple

The fact was there were three, no, four Molloys. He that inhabited me, my caricature of same, Gaber’s and the man of flesh and blood somewhere awaiting me. To these I would add Youdi’s were it not for Gaber’s corpse fidelity to the letter of his messages. Bad reasoning. For could it seriously be supposed that Youdi had confided to Gaber all he knew, or thought he knew (all one to Youdi) about his protege? Assuredly not. He had only revealed what he deemed of relevance for the prompt and proper execution of his orders. I will therefore add a fifth Molloy, that of Youdi.

  • he has a miserable dinner served by Martha, shepherd’s pie which he tells her is revolting, she says she’s noticed they’re leaving on a mission soon, Moran is furious at his son for telling her, his son says he didn’t and anyway has a stomach ache (p.108)
  • Moran administers a hot enema to his son, not without a struggle, then he has a poo, then they examine the fibrous threads floating in the yellowy liquid in the toilet bowl (p.109)
  • suddenly Moran experiences a stabbing pain in  his leg and falls; he administers painkilling gel; this is the first sign of the deterioration of his legs which will become a central theme of the mission (p.110)
  • Moran makes much of the cigar he’s smoking; he checks on his son’s stamp collection again; he goes for a stroll round his garden; we discover the local town is named Turdy ha ha (p.112)
  • an absurdist description of the inappropriate clothing Moran packs for the trip including a straw boater and an umbrella (p.114)
  • Moran describes the huge metal ring which carries all the keys to every lockable item in his house (p.115)
  • in the middle of the night he wakes his son to start the journey, but the son rolls on the bedroom floor screaming with anger and defiance, ‘You pig’, Moran calls him (p.116)
  • Moran goes out into the garden and chops wood until his fury has abated then goes back to his son’s room to find him crying, but packing (p.117)
  • they set off; Moran considers at length the merits of roping himself or maybe chaining himself to his son (p.119)
  • Moran asks him about the complicated penknife he gave his son as a gift and then shouts at him to give it to him; his son does so, holding back his tears (p.120)
  • for the first time we hear about ‘the voice’ which drives Moran on:

And if I submit to this paltry scrivening which is not of my province, it is for reasons very different from those that might be supposed. I am still obeying orders, if you like, but no longer out of fear. No, I am still afraid, but simply from force of habit. And the voice I listen to needs no Gaber to make it heard. For it is within me and exhorts me to continue to the end the faithful servant I have always been, of a cause that is not mine, and patiently fulfil in all its bitterness my calamitous part, as it was my will, when I had a will, that others should. And this with hatred in my heart, and scorn, of my master and his designs. Yes, it is rather an ambiguous voice and not always easy to follow, in its reasonings and decrees. But I follow it none the less, more or less, I follow it in this sense, that I know what it means, and in this sense, that I do what it tells me. And I do not think there are many voices of which as much may be said. And I feel I shall follow it from this day forth, no matter what it commands. And when it ceases, leaving me in doubt and darkness, I shall wait for it to come back, and do nothing, even though the whole world, through the channel of its innumerable authorities speaking with one accord, should enjoin upon me this and that, under pain of unspeakable punishments. But this evening, this morning, I have drunk a little more than usual and tomorrow I may be of a different mind. It also tells me, this voice I am only just beginning to know, that the memory of this work brought scrupulously to a close will help me to endure the long anguish of vagrancy and freedom. (p.121)

It is odd that Beckett has a reputation for brevity, when these prose works are the extreme opposite of brief, they manage to spool endless reams of text and psychological convolutions out of the most minute scruples and distinctions.

  • Moran tells us the town Molloy lives in is called Bally and the region surrounding it Ballyba, just as he comes from the town of Turdy and the region around it is called Turdyba (p.123) this sounds almost science fiction-y
  • it is a long journey as if across uninhabited unknown terrain; Moran shows his son how to make a shelter out of branches; they live off tinned fish and biscuits (p.124)
  • Moran tells us about a few previous missions: the Yerk affair took 3 months and concluded when he destroyed Yerk’s hatpin; another one consisted simply of bringing a certain person to a certain place at a certain time; he refers to the people he meets or deals with as ‘patients’ (p.126) all reads like a parody of a spy novel
  • he feels another stabbing pain in his knee and carries out a lengthy investigation (p.128)
  • the extended passage where he tells his son to go to the nearest town, Hole, and buy a bicycle, gives him £5 in ten shilling notes to do so, but the son insists he only gave him four pounds ten whereupon they have one of Beckett’s long, drawn-out enumerations or cataloguing of all possible variations on how 10 ten-shilling notes could be combined (p.130)
  • when his son seems reluctant to go, Moran throws stones at him then describes his eccentric method of running which often terrifies people (p.133)
  • Moran takes advantage of being alone in the forest by the camp they’ve made to have a wank (p.133) you should never underestimate the amount of wanking, farting, pooing and pissing in Beckett
  • a man comes out of the wood with a stick and a shock of white hair and asks for some bread, divides it between his two pockets, then goes back into the woods (p.134)
  • he – or the text – experiences that sense of alienation from himself, splitting of identities, himself in the third person

And it was not so much Moran as another, in the secret of Moran’s sensations exclusively, who said, No change, Moran, no change. This may seem impossible…

  • it becomes clear that this day Moran spends waiting for his son to buy a bike in Hole and return with it, is The First Day
  • another man appears out of the dark wood wearing a navy blue suit and outrageously wide black shoes, looming up at him in a strange and menacing way and the next thing Moran knows he is lying on the ground with his head beaten to a pulp (p.139) Moran drags him into the shelter, then out again and over to a copse, dismantles the shelter and throws the branches over him
  • he discovers his huge keyring has broken in the exertion and, what with his bad leg, doesn’t want to bend down to pick up each of the scattered keys, so lies down on his stomach and pulls himself around the grass to collect them (p.140) reduced to dragging himself across the mire
  • Moran jams his straw boater onto his head, puts his son’s raincoat over his arm, takes his umbrella and climbs up to a vantage point and scans the horizon (p.141)
  • he asks himself a series of rhetorical questions, some of which he can’t answer, eats his last tin of sardines and biscuits: thus passes The Third Day (p.142)
  • his son arrives back with a bicycle; they have a massive row about the cost and Moran insists on seeing a receipt and getting the change (p.141)
  • they try to mount the bicycle, with all their baggage but, rather inevitably, fall off (p.144)
  • they cycle downhill into Ballyba although the journey, hallucinatorily, seems to stretch out for days (p.145)
  • the encounter a shepherd with sheep and a sheepdog (p.146)
  • that night Moran has yet another furious row with his son and in the morning he’s left, with the bike and the money (p.148)
  • Moran struggles on, betraying more and more signs of exhaustion and mental decline, until Gaber arrives with the simple message that Moran must go home, instanter (p.150)
  • he describes the spavined, crippled rate at which he limps home using his umbrella as a crutch, fifteen steps and a rest; Gaber tells him to return in August or September, it takes him six months to get home (p.152)
  • he virtually crawls home, eating moss and getting the shits (p.153)

Certain mosses I consumed must have disagreed with me. I if I once made up my mind not to keep the hangman waiting, the bloody flux itself would not stop me, I would get there on all fours shitting out my entrails and chanting maledictions.

  • out of nowhere a barrage of 16 theological questions assail him, such as Does nature observe the sabbath? followed by 17 practical questions, for example, what has become of my hens? (p.154)
  • he embarks on a detailed two-page description of the dance of bees (p.155) very like the obsessively detailed enumeration of steps or procedures which pack Watt
  • he hears The Voice increasingly talking to him; his clothes rot to his body, it rains, it hails and he is torn whether to use the umbrella for protection against the elements or as the crutch which he now requires (p.157)
  • he finds himself on the land of a big ruddy farmer accusing him of trespassing and spins a cock and bull story about being on a pilgrimage to see the black Madonna of Turdy before paying him off with a florin (p.159)
  • he arrives home to find the house abandoned, Martha gone, everything empty and cold, the beehive empty except a little dust of annulets and wings (p.161)
  • it is a year since Moran set out; he settles back in and receives a visit from Gaber who wants a ‘report’, and from Father Ambrose; a throwaway remark tells us that his son is back, too; he is sleeping (p.161)
  • he needs crutches permanently now; he wonders if he’ll meet Moran; The Voice comes to him all the time; it uses a language unlike the language Moran learned; he will learn it; he will write his report; and the text ends with the words it opened with (see below) (p.162)

Bodies and Sex

The text throughout evinces what the narrator aptly describes as ‘horror of the body and its functions’. The most vivid example of this horror and disgust is administering the enema to his son.

The narrator tells us that he masturbates fairly regularly.

I fiddled with the knee-cap. It felt like a clitoris.

The dominant physical element to the narrative is the way Moran physically decays during the story (as all Beckett characters do; it’s in the contract). His legs go and he is forced to make crutches. By the end of the long stay in the forest, he can only get around by lying down and pulling himself with his hands. In other words, identical to the experiences of Molloy in his forest. Are they the same person transposing the same experiences onto two fictional identities? Or not? Perhaps. I don’t know.

Arcana

As mentioned in my review of part one, writing in French appears to have cleansed Beckett’s vocabulary of the infestation of incunabula and learned vocabulary which clots the earlier texts, the florid displays of arcane terminology. But there are still some choice terminology:

  • Personally I just liked plants, in all innocence and simplicity. I even saw in them at times a superfetatory proof of the existence of God.
  • I was about to conclude as usual that it was just another bad dream when a fulgurating pain went through my knee.
  • Did I even know the amount I had brought with me? No. To me too I cheerfully applied the maieutic method.
  • And I who a fortnight before would joyfully have reckoned how long I could survive on the provisions that remained, probably with reference to the question of calories and vitamins, and established in my head a series of menus asymptotically approaching nutritional zero, was now content to note feebly that I should soon be dead of inanition, if I did not succeed in renewing my provisions.

It may or may not be significant that the arcane words become more common in the second part of part two, as Moran slowly loses his identity, comes more under the influence of ‘The Voice’ and – possibly, in some sense, maybe, is beginning to morph into Molloy.

It also coincides with increasing frequency of maybe the single easiest identifier of Beckett’s prose style, the phrase ‘I don’t know’.

  • But then he would have seen I was ill. Not that I was exactly ill. And why did I not want him to know I was ill? I don’t know.
  • Have you a tongue in your head? he said. I don’t know you, I said.
  • I fancy he would have liked me for a friend. I don’t know what became of him.
  • Do you imagine a second-hand bicycle costs four pounds ten shillings? I said. I don’t know, he said. I did not know either.
  • That night I had a violent scene with my son. I do not remember about what. Wait, it may be important. No, I don’t know.

One one level, if you just pay attention to the number of times the narrator and the characters say ‘I don’t know’, I found all this ignorance, stupidity and unknowing eventually made me want to scream. You have to get into his world where not-knowing is the basic condition of all humans.

Humour

Probably, as with part one, there are standalone passages you could take out of context and read as funny, for example the dialogue with the priest, Father Ambrose. But Moran starts out weird and gets much weirder. Above all the entire text is dominated by his bullying relationship with his son who he is constantly berating and criticising. This incessant bullying creates an oppressive and horrible atmosphere.

And then in the blurred days in the forest he apparently beats a stranger’s head to a pulp, drags the body into his shelter, then out of it again, and buries it under forest debris. Maybe some people would find this funny.

So you might be able to isolate certain passages and claim they have a kind of retarded humour – such as the extended passage where he argues with his son about the money he’s giving him to buy a bicycle. But I simply found the occasional moments of ‘humour’ imaginatively outweighed by the oppressivenesss of Moran’s bullying and then murdering.

Avant-garde

You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. You might decide to be a bit different and use quail’s eggs or seagull eggs or penguin eggs, but they’re still eggs, they have a yolk and a white, the omelette comes out looking yellow.

Words have meanings. That’s what they’re for. Unlike painting or sculpture, texts cannot be ‘abstract’ because they use words and each word conveys meaning and carries connotations from the reader or audience’s entire previous experience of its usage. Even the Surrealists, even the Dadaists who set out to destroy everything, discovered you can’t destroy language. As soon as you start using words, or anything which sounds remotely like words, the human brain is designed and trained to leap on them, complete them, complete phrases and supply a world of meanings. As the Unnamable puts it, in the last book of the Trilogy:

But it seems impossible to speak and yet say nothing,

Anyway, Beckett’s texts are very far from being as consciously destructive and avant-garde as Dadaism.

On the back cover blurb and the Wikipedia article about this book, writers and critics queue up to tell us how Beckett revolutionised the novel by throwing out narrative, character, events, meaning and so on. It would be a remarkable achievement if he had truly done that.

But he hasn’t. There is a narrative, as I have summarised above, and there are characters and there are events. Moran is visited by a fellow agent, goes to meet the local priest, discusses the health of his hens and his bees, has extended encounters with his son and his servant Martha around his house, describes his spinster neighbours and their little doggy, before he sets off on his long mission, has an extended argument with his son about buying a bicycle and, while his son is away, gets into a fight with a stranger who he appears to murder and bury.

To be sure, these incidents are reported in a weirdly solipsistic and brain-damaged style, by a narrator with only a shaky grasp on reality who continually wonders if any of it happened or is real. That aspect – the demented style the whole thing is told in – is weird and unusual. But nonetheless, there is a central narrator, there are characters – son, Martha, Gaber, Father Ambrose, the shady men in the forest – and there are events.

Thus, in my opinion, all talk of Beckett throwing out traditional aspects of the novel are misleading. All the traditional aspects are still there, just subjected to weird distortions.

Final twists

1. Ending with the beginning

Much is made of the final words of the text. If you recall, part two opens with the sentences:

It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. I am calm. All is sleeping. Nevertheless I get up and go to my desk. I can’t sleep. My lamp sheds a soft and steady light. I have trimmed it. It will last till morning.

80 pages later, after the heterdemalion of verbiage and disintegrating consciousness we’ve been subjected to, Moran arrives back at his house and sits down to write:

Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.

So an obvious thought is implied by this ending: that the text is circular; that the text ends with him sitting down to write the text we have just read, with the twist that it is not true. If he has made up the facts about it being midnight and it not raining, what else has he made up?

Once again, this is presented by critics in awe of Beckett’s greatness as if it was a major undermining of The Novel – and yet for at least a hundred years before this book was published, tricksy, clever novelists had been experimenting with all forms of unreliable narrator whose narrative is not to be taken at face value.

But the quote should be put in context.

I have spoken of a voice telling me things. I was getting to know it better now, to understand what it wanted. It
did not use the words that Moran had been taught when he was little and that he in his turn had taught to his little one. So that at first I did not know what it wanted. But in the end I understood this language. I understood it, I understand it, all wrong perhaps. That is not what matters. It told me to write the report. Does this mean I am freer now than I was? I do not know. I shall learn. Then I went back into the house and wrote. It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.

2. Does Moran become Molloy?

The other big question often raised about the text is the notion that Moran himself is metamorphosing into someone else. This is suggested by two things:

  1. the obvious fact that he refers to himself, Moran, in the third person, as if he’s ceasing to be Moran
  2. the growing presence of the ‘voice’ which has been telling him to do things and which is referred to more and more – the voice in his head, which some critics see as a new identity taking him over

This is the evidence some critics use to suggest that part two is really the prequel to part one and that, after all his tribulations, at the end of part two, Moran is morphing into the character named Molloy and then goes on to have the adventures described in part one.

This has a neat tricksy arty feel about it but doesn’t make strict sense if you come to examine the details of both narratives… but then not much in this dense 160 pages of text makes sense anyway, so why not – and it’s fun trying to map out and sustain this theory, in a rather Rubik’s cube, Sudoku kind of way, as many scholars have.

Anyway. My point would be that the book isn’t about the ‘plot’, the plot is secondary, or almost irrelevant. It is about the prose.

Ten thousand ways of being negative

  • What then was the source of Ballyba’s prosperity? I’ll tell you. No, I’ll tell you nothing. Nothing.
  • Stories, stories. I have not been able to tell them. I shall not be able to tell this one.

You can’t help being impressed by the apparently endless number of ways Beckett finds for conveying the essentially identical sentiment of mental and physical collapse and amnesia.


Credit

Molloy by Samuel Beckett was published in French in 1950. The English translation by Beckett himself with help from Patrick Bowles was published in 1955. Page references are to the Picador paperback edition of The Beckett Trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable.

Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe (1589)

‘But I perceive there is no love on earth,
Pity in Jews, nor piety in Turks…’
(Abigail, after learning her father conspired to get her true love murdered)

Provenance

First recorded performance: 26 February 1592, by Lord Strange’s acting company.

First published: 1592.

Earliest extant edition, 1633. This was published to coincide with a revival of the play, which included a performance before King Charles and his wife Queen Henrietta Maria, for which a new prologue and epilogue were written.

Full title: The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta. Note that, although the 1633 quarto divided the play into acts, it wasn’t divided into scenes, there were no indications where scenes were set, or which bit of dialogue were asides to the audience. All of these were added by the Reverend Alexander Dyce in his 1876 edition of the plays, and have been copied by most modern editors.

Like Tamburlaine, the Jew has a large cast of 25 speaking characters, plus numerous unnamed citizens of Malta, Turkish janizaries, guards, attendants and slaves. In other words, it was a theatrical epic, in its day.

Executive summary

The Governor of Malta seizes the wealth of all Jewish citizens to pay the Turks not to invade. In revenge the richest Jew in Malta, Barabas, designs a barrage of retaliation against the governor, helped by his slave, Ithamore.

Barabas’ murderous deeds include:

  • getting the governor’s son killed in a duel
  • terrorising his own daughter, who joins a nunnery for safety but is afterwards poisoned by her father, along with the entire nunnery
  • the strangling of an old friar and the framing of another friar for the murder
  • poisoning his servant Ithamore when he deserts him, along with the prostitute and her pimp, who had threatened to expose him

Finally, Barabas betrays the entire population of Malta by helping the Turks conquer Malta Town, but he is then outwitted when the Christian governor turns the tables on him, leaving him to burn alive in the trap he had set for the Turks, but is led to fall into himself. Subtle, it ain’t.

Historical fact check: Barabas and Ferneze are fictional characters, there never was a Jew of Malta or a governor of that name. Malta never fell to the Turks, and never paid them tribute. The entire storyline is a product of the playwright’s imagination.

The play

Prologue The ghost of Machiavelli introduces Barabas, the Jew of Malta. In Marlowe’s time there were only a few hundred Jews in London. They were better known from popular stereotypes of greed or cunning than from personal contact.

It is appropriate, then that one stereotype of cunning is introduced by another. Niccolò Machiavelli (1469 – 1527) was an Italian Renaissance diplomat, philosopher and writer best known for The Prince, a handbook of statecraft which eschews any notions of religion or morality in favour of hard-nosed advice about what actually works when it comes to ruling a state. Machiavelli’s attitude is typified by these lines from the prologue:

I count religion but a childish toy,
And hold there is no sin but ignorance.

Machiavelli’s bluntness and his rejection of Christian morality, in an age drenched in Christian values, caused his name to be associated with complex and unscrupulous scheming – as it has remained, right down to the present day.

Might first made kings, and laws were then most sure
When, like the Draco’s, they were writ in blood.

Anyway, the ghost of Machiavelli introduces Barabas as one of his own – an amoral, cunning schemer.

Act 1

Scene 1 Barabas is counting his wealth. He envies factors for the rich mines of India, and the Moors who (according to legend) simply have to bend down to pick rare stones from the earth. This opening scene establishes Barabas as very rich, very greedy, and the possessor of a Marlowe-sized imagination, rich with exotic and evocative names and visions of boundless riches.

Give me the merchants of the Indian mines,
That trade in metal of the purest mould;
The wealthy Moor, that in the eastern rocks
Without control can pick his riches up,
And in his house heap pearl like pebble-stones,
Receive them free, and sell them by the weight;
Bags of fiery opals, sapphires, amethysts,
Jacinths, hard topaz, grass-green emeralds,
Beauteous rubies, sparkling diämonds,
And seld-seen costly stones of so great price,
As one of them, indifferently rated,
And of a carat of this quantity,
May serve, in peril of calamity,
To ransom great kings from captivity

And of course Barabas’s occupation is a trader in the rarest, most precious jewels, clothes and valuables in the world, so it is an open invitation for reams of Marlovian sensual luxury.

Two merchants come to tell Barabas his ships have arrived from various destinations, including Egypt via Cyprus, bearing rich goods. When they leave he soliloquises on how much more successful the practical Jews are than faithless Christians, name-checking a number of other Jewish millionaires, saying he’d rather be hated as a Jew and be rich, than be accepted as a Christian and be poor.

Three Jews arrive to tell the ominous news that an embassy of Turks has arrived to see the governor and that all the island’s Jews are summoned to the senate house. Barabas assures them they are wrong to have misgivings. When they exit, he continues to tell himself that the Turks and Maltese are at peace, so there will be no trouble. And even if there is, he is only concerned about himself and his daughter.

The scene establishes what will become a format of the play which is the many times Barabas is talking to someone saying one thing – but then makes an aside to the audience in which he reveals he is thinking something quite different.

Scene 3 The senate house The Turkish leader, the Sultan’s son Selim Calymath, makes it clear to the governor of Malta, Ferneze, that they demand ten years worth of tribute – a hundred thousand crowns. Ferneze begs a month to raise it and Calymath agrees, leaving with his retinue.

The governor calls in the island’s Jews, explains Calymath’s extortion and says he is going to raise the lion’s share of it by mulcting them, demanding half their estates. He is quite venomous about it:

SECOND KNIGHT: Have strangers leave with us to get their wealth?
Then let them with us cóntribute.
BARABAS: How! equally?
GOVERNOR FERNESE: No, Jew, like infidels;
For through our sufferance of your hateful lives,
Who stand accursèd in the sight of Heaven,
These taxes and afflictions are befall’n,
And therefore thus we are determinèd. −

So the Christians put up with the Jews but not far beneath the surface hate and despise them. The Governor announces he will confiscate half the Jews’ wealth and anyone who hesitates will a) be forced to convert to Christianity and if they still hesitate, b) all their goods will be confiscated. The other Jews immediately say they’ll surrender half their wealth, but Barabas is outraged, criticises them and tries to haggle with the Governor. Who promptly orders all Barabas’s wealth to be confiscated!

When he protests at this, one of the governor’s knights the governor’s entourage consists of members of the Order of the Knights of St John) suggests they confiscate Barabas’s house and turn it into a nunnery, which the Governor immediately accepts and orders.

The governor and his officials exit and Barabas sinks to his knees to call down a world of vengeance upon them. The other Jews tell him to reflect on the story of Job but Barabas dismisses it, saying he was vastly richer than Job, has lost more, is hugely more inconsolable.

Scene 4 Barabas’s daughter Abigail comes to meet him. She is in tears, she has heard the bad news. He reveals a secret – he had hidden quite a lot of wealth away. But Abigail tells him they have already confiscated the house and started to convert it into a nunnery! Barabas laments his lost gold and jewels, pauses, then comes up with a Cunning Plan. Abigail will convert to Christianity, enrol as a nun and, once she’s in, pull up the floorboards under which the loot is hidden, and return with it to her father.

Abigail agrees but doubts whether she can carry it off. Confidence is all, her father tells her. They exit.

Enter Friar Jacomo, Friar Barnardine, Abbess, and a Nun. They have barely made a few remarks about the new nunnery before Abigail re-enters, identifies herself as the daughter of the Jew, and begs forgiveness, penitence and asks to be enrolled in the order. Improbably the friars and abbess agree.

At which point Baraba re-enters and puts up a pretence of being appalled that his daughter is going over to the enemy. He curses and anathematises her as the Christians try to intervene, but interspersed between his curses, Barabas whispers instructions on how to find the floorboard with the secret mark and find the treasure. They all leave the stage.

Enter Mathias, a young man who, we soon learn, is in love with Abigail and dejected to see her going off to a nunnery. His friend Lodowick enters – who just happens to be the governor’s son – and asks Mathias why he’s in the dumps, allowing Mathias to explain at length his love for Abigail. While he does so, he reveals that she is scarce fourteen-years-old. Lodowick says that if she’s as beautiful as his friend claims, it would be good to visit and see her. They exit.

Act 2

Scene 1 Before the House of Barabas, now a Nunnery Enter Barabas who explains a) that it is night but he can’t sleep, and b) he’s awaiting a signal from Abigail. Enter Abigail, obviously in the balcony of the theatre, where she describes: finding the floorboards, digging up the treasure, coming to the window, whispering to her father waiting below, then throwing him the bags of gold, at which he rejoices and praises her.

Scene 2 The Council House The Governor interviews the Spanish captain – Martin del Bosco – of a ship recently docked in the harbour who describes how his ship was set upon by Turks, how they fought them off and seized one of their ships, whose crew they have come to Malta to sell as slaves.

The governor initially says no, because he is afraid of the Turks, but some of his advisors encourage del Bosco to shame the governor, to tell him not to submit to the Turks, specially after their recent capture of Rhodes (seized from the order of the Knights of St John in 1523).

Del Bosco succeeds in firing the governor’s fighting zeal. He offers to write to the king of Spain for help. Ferneze appoints him military ruler of the island and challenges the Turks to do their worst. If necessary, like the garrison on Rhodes, they’ll fight and die to the last man.

Scene 3 The market place Two officers are lining del Bosco’s captured men up to be sold as slaves. Enter Barabas who tells us he has used the gold to buy a house as big as the governor’s and his daughter has left the convent. He tells us he hails from Florence where he learned to bow and fawn and curtsey to faithless Christians and then to spit into their collecting bowls.

Enter Lodowick and he and Barabas engage in a stylised conversation in which Lodowick asks whether Barabas has a diamond, and Barabas replies, yes a pretty one – by which they both mean Abigail – the dialogue being interspersed with Barabas’s bitter vengeful asides to the audience in which he reveals what he’d really like to do to the governor’s son i.e. poison him.

Having mutually agreed to rendezvous later, Lodowick now accompanies Barabas to the slave market, where they size up the merchandise and chat to the selling officers. He rejects one costing 200 crowns, not least because he looks fit and healthy so will cost a fortune to feed, instead buys a leaner one, from Thrace, named Ithamore, for 100 crowns. Aside to the audience Barabas explains that he is buying the slave solely to further his plans of revenge!

Enter young Mathias and his mother to the slave market, and discuss the wares. We now learn that Barabas knows his daughter and Mathias are in love but plans to foil their love. Nonetheless, he enjoys leading Mathias on. Everyone exits, leaving Barabas alone with Ithamore. Barabas tells him, if he is to please his master, he must forget the Christian virtues of ‘Compassion, love, vain hope, and heartless fear’ and lose pity. He goes on to give a magnificent speech describing his own biography.

As for myself, I walk abroad o’ nights,
And kill sick people groaning under walls:
Sometimes I go about and poison wells;
And now and then, to cherish Christian thieves,
I am content to lose some of my crowns,
That I may, walking in my gallery,
See ’em go pinioned along by my door.
Being young, I studied physic, and began
To practice first upon th’ Italian;
There I enriched the priests with burials,
And always kept the sexton’s arms in ure −
With digging graves and ringing dead men’s knells:
And, after that, was I an engineer,
And in the wars ‘twixt France and Germany,
Under pretence of helping Charles the Fifth,
Slew friend and enemy with my stratagems:
Then, after that, was I an usurer,
And with extorting, cozening, forfeiting,
And tricks belonging unto brokery,
I filled the gaols with bankrouts in a year,
And with young orphans planted hospitals;
And every moon made some or other mad,
And now and then one hang himself for grief,
Pinning upon his breast a long great scroll
How I with interest tormented him.

There’s nothing like a good stage villain. You can imagine the actor taunting the Elizabethan audience, who enthusiastically booed him and threw rotten tomatoes. Boo, hiss, villain! And it turns out that Ithamore is a perfect match. When Barabas asks how he has spent his life, Ithamore gleefully replies:

Faith, master,
In setting Christian villages on fire,
Chaining of eunuchs, binding galley-slaves.
One time I was an hostler in an inn,
And in the night-time secretly would I steal
To travellers’ chambers, and there cut their throats:
Once at Jerusalem, where the pilgrims kneeled,
I strowèd powder on the marble stones,
And therewithal their knees would rankle so,
That I have laughed a-good to see the cripples
Go limping home to Christendom on stilts.

He was raised in Arabia and has served the Turks till his recent capture, so it appears Ithamore is a Muslim i.e. a) like Barabas, an enemy of Christians and b) circumcised. ‘We are villains both; Both circumcisèd; we hate Christians both.’

Scene 4 Now they are in front of Barabas’s new house and enter Lodowick to keep his appointment. Barabas lets him into the house and orders his daughter to entertain him. (In asides he whispers to Abigail to pretend to Lodowick she is in love with him, to lead him on, she protests it is Mathias she loves, Barabas orders her to do it. He plans to kill them both [Lodowick and Mathias]).

Enter Mathias and Barabas play acts that he supports his suit for his daughter’s hand but is having a hard time fighting off Lodowick. Only recently he snuck into his house to see Abigail. He tells Mathias to hide and watch. They both watch Lodowick come out of the house hand in hand with Abigail, as if in love. Mathias makes to draw his sword and kill him, but Barabas says ‘not in my house; contain your wrath; there will be other occasions’ and Mathias exists, mighty angry.

Lodowick sees him depart, asks Barabas about him, who explains that Mathias is mad with jealousy and plans to kill him (Lodowick). He encourages Lodowick’s suit for Abigail, and tells her to continue pretending to be in love with him, doing so in strongly anti-Christian phraseology, which is designed to play up the Christian audience’s stereotypes of wicked Jews, describing Lodowick as:

This offspring of Cain, this Jebusite,
That never tasted of the Passover,
Nor e’er shall see the land of Canaan,
Nor our Messias that is yet to come;
This gentle maggot, Lodowick, I mean

And as to the ‘morality’ of the situation:

It’s no sin to deceive a Christiän;
For they themselves hold it a principle,

Abigail promises herself to Lodowick – then immediately turns to the audience and shares her regret. (This happens throughout the play, it’s one of its leading features – the very high amount of speaking aside, to let the audience hear a character’s true feelings of intentions, as opposed to what they say.)

Lodowick is puzzled why Abigail looks pale and faint. His doubts vanish when he sees that villain Mathias enters and makes as if to attack him. Barabas tells him to hold and leave, while he (Barabas) sorts out the situation. Barabas then tells Mathias that he – Barabas – just saved his life from the incensed rival, Lodowick. He encourages Mathias to attack Lodowick next time he sees him.

Barabas is, as we can see, adopting the role of impresario which emerges clearly as the central role in the city comedies of a decade later, written by Ben Jonson and colleagues – in which the play itself contains a trickster figure who concocts ever-more elaborate scams and schemes to humiliate or punish other characters.

Abigail has witnessed all this and has, of course, played a lying part, deceiving Lodowick. Now she bursts into tears and asks her father why he’s setting the two young men against each other. Barabas orders Ithamore to put her in the house which he does, presumably none too gently. Then Barabas gives Ithamore a letter to deliver to Mathias, as if from Lodowick, challenging him to a duel. Ho ho ho, he rubs his hands with malevolent glee, the audience boos and hisses.

Act 3

Scene 1 The Veranda of the House of Bellamira Enter Bellamira. Who is Bellamira? A courtesan. She laments that business has dried up since the Turks besieged the island. Enter her ‘bully’, meaning either pimp or associate, Pilia-Borza, who has stolen a bag of silver from Barabas’s house, through the window. At that moment, Ithamore enters, Pilia-Borza drags Bellamira away, but not before Ithamore sees her and falls in love at first sight. In passing, he tells us he’s delivered Barabas’s fake letter to Mathias.

NOTE: Ithamore, as a slave, and Pilia-Borza, as a criminal, both speak in prose, unlike every other character in the play who speak in verse.

Scene 2 Mathias and Lodowick encounter each other in the street and have a swordfight while Barabas watches gleefully from a balcony. They kill each other. Enter their respective parents, governor Ferneze Lodowick’s father and Katherine, Mathias’s widowed mother. After initial antagonism, Ferneze and Katherine lock hands in grief, promising to bury the dead boys in one mausoleum, and to discover what drove the former friends to kill each other. Ooops. Sounds ominous for Barabas.

Scene 3 A room in Barabas’s house Ithamore is cackling over the two dead Christians when Abigail enters. Ithamore laughingly tells her that her father was responsible for the scam to fool Lodowick and Mathias into killing each other.

Outraged (and not really that upset) Abigail orders him to go fetch a friar from the nunnery. She gives a little speech which is enough time for Ithamore to go and return with Friar Jacomo. Abigail tells him she wants to enter the nunnery. ‘What, again?’ Jacomo asks. She tried it once and almost immediately left. What’s changed? She’s learned more about life, she replies.

ABIGAIL: Then were my thoughts so frail and unconfirmed
And I was chained to follies of the world:
But now experience, purchasèd with grief,
Has made me see the difference of things.
My sinful soul, alas, hath paced too long
The fatal labyrinth of misbelief,
Far from the Son that gives eternal life!

She is being positioned as the Good Jew, the one who converts to Christianity.

Scene 4 Barabas has heard that Abigail has entered a nunnery. Does she suspect him of murdering her sweetheart? What has made her betray him? Who gave him away? Ironically, at the moment Ithamore enters and, with absurd exaggeration, Barabas now calls him his only hope.

BARABAS: Come near, my love; come near, thy master’s life,
My trusty servant, nay, my second self;
For I have now no hope but even in thee,
And on that hope my happiness is built.

Ithamore begins to explain that it was he who told Abigaill about the murder plot, but Barabas, thinking he is about to defend his daughter, cuts him off and says, henceforth ‘she is hateful to my soul and me.’ Rashly and grotesquely he says he’ll adopt Ithamore as his heir.

But still his servant… He bids Ithamore fetch the pot of rice off the oven. When the servant brings it, Barabas explains that he is going to use it to poison Abigail. Yes, he now shows Ithamore and the audience a vial of ‘precious powder’ that he bought off a bloke in Ancona, which binds, infects and poisons deeply.

He sprinkles the poison powder onto the rice, mixes it in, and tells Ithamore to go and leave it in the dark entrance to the nunnery where people leave offerings when they want to be anonymous. (The reader/audience can immediately foresee unintended consequences i.e. poisonings.)

Ithamore enthusiastically sets off with the pot. As soon as he’s left, Barabas says he will pay Ithamore back, too. Ooh he’s such a bad baddie.

Scene 5 The Council House Apparently it’s a month after the first scene with the Turks, for now a Turkish envoy has arrived to tell the governor the month is up, so where’s the gold? If you remember, governor Ferneze had been encouraged to break his word to the Turks by some of the Knights and the Spaniard Martin del Bosco, and so now he tells the Turkish basso (pashaw) that he will have no tribute and defies the Turks to do their worst. They will, the basso replies and exits.

Ferneze makes a brief speech summoning the young men of Malta to war.

Scene 6 Interior of the nunnery Friar Jacomo and Friar Barnardine announce that all the nuns are sick. In fact as they enter the nunnery one appears to say that all the nuns are dead – except for Abigail, who now meets them, herself grievously sick.

Jacomo goes off and Abigail confesses to Barnardine that her greatest sin or regret is knowledge that her father conspired to set Lodowick and Mathias against each other, and she shows them papers to prove it. But she begs them not to reveal this to anyone and, as it was said in confession, they can’t. And then Abigail dies – poisoned by her father.

Jacomo rejoins Barnardine to see Abigail’s body, and confirm that the nuns are all dead. Barnardine asks him to accompany him to confront the Jew.

Act 4

Scene 1 A street Barabas is malevolently gleeful that all the nuns are dead, poisoned by him! Listen to those Christian bells ha ha ha. There’s a monastery nearby. Ithamore enthusiastically offers to poison all the monks, but Barabas says that won’t be necessary. Since they were all sleeping with the nuns, they’ll all die of grief. Ooooh, you could bottle the malevolent cynicism!

Along come the two monks, to a famous line from Ithamore: ‘ Look, look, master; here come two religious caterpillars.’ There is a clever, stylised dialogue where Bardnardine keeps trying to accuse Barabas of gross sins but Barabas interrupts him to deflect the charges with confessions of more minor sins. The most famous exchange comes at the end , famous because it was used as an epigraph to one of his own poems by T.S. Eliot.:

FRIAR BARNARDINE: Thou hast committed −
BARABAS: Fornication: but that was in another country;
And besides, the wench is dead.

But when Barnardine finally manages to mention Mathias and Lodowick, Barabas panics that his daughter confessed everything, he will be hanged for murder, and makes a panic-stricken appeal to convert to Christianity. As part of which he says some notable lines calumniating his own religion:

Is’t not too late now to turn Christiän?
I have been zealous in the Jewish faith,
Hard-hearted to the poor, a covetous wretch,
That would for lucre’s sake have sold my soul;

Which sounds like libelous anti-Semitism, but consider the context. He is sucking up to two Catholic officials, he wants to make the best possible impression. Of course he’ll tell them what they want to hear.

Anyway, Barabas makes asides to Jacomo about how much wealth he’ll give his monastery, if can make the other leave, which he tries to do but the monks end up poking and pushing each other and then break out fighting, egged on, one imagines by the audience who are thoroughly enjoying themselves.

Barabas and Ithamore part the fighting friars, and Barabas continues to promise them, separately, his bounty. Ithamore takes Barnardine into Barabas’s house, Barabas promises Jacomo he’ll have a special meeting with him that evening.

Left alone onstage, Barabas reveals his plan which is – to murder them to stop them talking about the Lodowick-Mathias con:

Now I have such a plot for both their lives,
As never Jew nor Christian knew the like:
One turned my daughter, therefore he shall die;
The other knows enough to have my life,
Therefore ’tis not requisite he should live.

Scene 2 Inside Barabas’ House Ithamore tells Barabas Father Barnardine has eaten and fallen asleep in a chair. Barabas orders him to take off his girdle and make a noose from it. They pull back the curtain of the stage’s inner room to reveal Barnardine asleep in a chair, startle him awake, slip the noose round his neck and strangle him. Ithamore is pleased that the rope left no mark on the friar’s neck.

He has an idea and they prop the corpse up against a wall holding a staff. He looks large as life. They exit the room.

Scene 3 It’s 1 in the morning. Friar Jacomo has come to keep his appointment. He spots Barnardine, apparently blocking his way, addresses him, is irritated by his silence, eventually gets angry, seizes his staff and strikes him down. At this moment Barabas and Ithamore come out the house and feign horror to discover that Jacomo has murdered his fellow friar. Ithamore makes fun of ‘these Christians’ who murder each other. Jacomo is panic-stricken. Then horrified when Barabas and Ithamore piously make a citizen’s arrest.

Scene 4 Veranda of Bellamira’s house Haven’t seen much of her, have we? She greets Pilia-Borza who returns from delivering a letter to Ithamore. She asks where he found him? At the public gallows watching the hanging of a friar (presumably Jacomo).

Now Ithamore enters. The other two greet him lavishly. Ithamore is not wrong to think they’re planning some scam. They flatter him and Bellamira feigns sexy love for him, while they try to establish how much money Barabas has, where it is hidden, and whether Ithamore will help them steal it. Yes, is his answer, but the Jew buries it secretly every night.

Ithamore is comically ready to write a letter to Barabas threatening to reveal all unless he sends him a hundred crowns. ‘Two hundred’ says Pilia. Ithamore changes it, signs it and hands it to Pilia, condescendingly, who exits.

Now Bellamira takes Ithamore’s head into her lap and calls her servants for food and to bring rich silks to dress her lover in. It is pure comedy the way Ithamore takes to this role immediately. She tells him she’s not married. He says they’ll get married and go to Greece, and then – strikingly – breaks into verse, producing a variation on Marlowe’s famous lyric, ‘Come live with me and be my love.’

Pilia returns and the Jew only gave him ten crowns. Outraged, Ithamore springs up and scribbles another letter demanding at least 500. Pilia departs. Bellamira kisses Ithamore, then takes him inside for a banquet of love i.e. sex.

Scene 5 Barabas’ house Barabas is outraged at Ithamore’s defection, and almost as much by the skinny, hacked-about appearance of Pilia-Borza, ‘a shag-rag knave’. Whining self-pity:

BARABAS: Was ever Jew tormented as I am?

At which moment Pilia appears with the new demands. More demands! Barabas adopts a wheedling tone and tries to persuade Bilia to share a meal (which he will poison) but Pilia is having none of it and simply wants the money.

Scene 6 Bellamira’s veranda Bellamira and Pilia get Ithamore drunk and to confess his role in the murder of Lodowick and Mathias, that he carried the poisoned broth which killed an entire nunnery and strangled Friar Barnardine.

Bellamira and Pilia are just agreeing between themselves that they’ll take this intelligence to the governor, when enter Barabas disguised as a French musician with a lute, offering to play love music. He has a conspicuous nosegay in his hat and Bellamira takes a fancy to it. Barabas graciously hands it over and the other three all take a deep smell of it – which is what Barabas planned, because it is poisoned.

They tell Barabas to play his lute and, as he does so, drunken Ithamore regales the other two with a series of scandalous libels on Barabas’s stinginess and personal hygiene – to each of which Barabas-in-disguise responds with angry asides to the audience. Finally Barabas can stand it no more and – still in disguised as the French musician – makes his excuses and departs.

Drunken Ithamore thinks he needs to send for one more lot of money and now dispatches Pilia, without a letter, just with a verbal threat to reveal all – then goes back inside with Bellamira.

Act 5

Scene 1 In the Council House The governor is just warning the knights that the long-threatened Turkish assault is about to begin, when Bellamira and Pilia-Borza push their way through and blurt out that Barabas is responsible for the death of the governor’s son and the dead nuns and the friar. Ferneze is inclined to dismiss them but they say they have his servant at their place, drunk: he’ll vouch for it.

Ferneze dispatches officers to fetch Barabas and Ithamore and they return approximately ten seconds later. This is theatre, a forum for entertainment not realism or plausibility. Ithamore has belly-ache (from the poison – Barabas kicks himself that he did not administer more, sooner) and readily confesses everything to the governor.

Quick-wittedly, Barabas dismisses the other three as bad witnesses, but Ferneze doesn’t buy it and tells his officers to take all four of them to the cells.

Enter Katherine who wants to know whether it’s true that ‘the Jew’ was responsible for the murder of her son. Yes, the governor tells her. Barely a minute after being taken away, an officer re-enters to say all four of them are dead! Ferneze says bury the other three, get someone to throw the Jew’s body over the wall at the Turks. Everyone exits, leaving Barabas’ corpse lying onstage.

Scene 2 Not exactly to our surprise, Barabas wakes up. He took some kind of fancy sleeping potion (actually explained to be ‘poppy and cold mandrake juice’). Now he is outside the city walls. He gets up and vows vengeance on the city, vows revenge and not in a subtle way:

I’ll be revenged on this accursèd town;
For by my means Calymath shall enter in:
I’ll help to slay their children and their wives,
To fire the churches, pull their houses down,
Take my goods too, and seize upon my lands.
I hope to see the governor a slave,
And, rowing in a galley, whipt to death.

Enter Calymath, Bassoes, and Turks to whom Barabas immediately explains who he is, why he is not a spy, and why he will help them take the town. He explains there’s a secret vault dug under the town to let streams pass under and out. He’ll lead a force of 500 along it and up into the centre of the town, surprise everyone and open the gates. Turkish leader Calyphas says: it’s a deal!

Scene 3 The next scene jumps forward to the city having been stormed by the Turks with Barabas’s help. Enter Calymath, Bassoes, Turks, and Barabas with Ferneze and Knights prisoners. As reward for his help, Calyphas makes Barabas governor of the town and says he can do what he wants with his prisoners – then exits. Barabas orders his new troops, his Janizaries, to throw the governor and his entourage in prison.

Scene 4 Residence of Barabas the governor Barabas soliloquises that he is not safe while the entire population hates him, He must be wary, ‘circumspect’.

Ferneze is brought in and, after he’s finished shouting at Barabas, Barabas surprises him by saying he plans to ‘save’ Malta. How about a plan to trap Calymath and all his men in an out-house and set it on fire? Ferneze is impressed and interested, says he will give Barabas even more wealth if he keeps his word. Barabas promptly grants Ferneze his freedom, and the shake on the deal.

Ferneze exits and Barabas reflects that he will use anyone to suit his ends. He makes what at first seems an anti-semitic remark i.e. invoking anti-Semitic stereotypes:

Thus, loving neither, will I live with both,
Making a profit of my policy;
And he from whom my most advantage comes,
Shall be my friend.
This is the life we Jews are used to lead;

But then backs it with the crucial addition – after all, this is how Christians behave:

And reason too, for Christians do the like.

So the entire play might be a monstrosity of anti-Semitic stereotyping, but Barabas makes a point of repeating that he is only behaving as the faithless Christians do.

Scene 5 Calymath and his officials have finished a tour of the ruins and the island, and Calymath is just musing on its geographical advantages when a messenger arrives inviting Calymath and his men to a grand feast, the men in a big out-house, Calymath and his officers at his house.

Scene 6 A very short scene in which we see Ferneze briefing Martin del Bosco and the Knights about the signal which will tell them it’s the moment to attack the feasting Turks.

Scene 7 Barabas is in his grand hall with carpenters as they finish some big contraption. He pays them to go and drink. In fact he hopes they drink and die. Barabas has arrived at the extreme limit of misanthropy:

BARABAS: For, so I live, perish may all the world!

A messenger arrives to say Calymath will attend the feast.

Then enter Ferneze who hands over to Barabas the sum agreed for freeing Malta from the Turks, 100,000 pounds. Barabas explains his plan: the monastery where the Turkish troops are to be feasted is mined with gunpowder; at the right moment it will be set off, the whole place blown sky high and all the Turkish soldiers massacred.

Meanwhile – Barabas explains – in this hall the carpenters have fixed it so that, at the height of the feast, at a signal Ferneze will cut a cord and the floor will part throwing Calymath and his generals into a deep pit. The Turks approach, Ferneze hides, and Marlowe makes Barabas directly address the audience. Asides are one thing but Barabas ‘breaks the fourth wall’ to boast of his ingenious evil:

A kingly kind of trade, to purchase towns
By treachery, and sell ’em by deceit?
Now tell me, worldlings, underneath the sun
If greater falsehood ever has been done?

Calymath and his entourage enter and salute Barabas up in the gallery who is guilefully greeting them when…. Ferneze steps forward from his hiding place and says he will show Calymath the trap Barabas had prepared. All this time Barabas has been up in the ‘balcony’ section of the theatre. Now, at the sound of a distant trumpet, Ferneze cuts the cord, the floor opens beneath Barabas and… he falls into the vat of boiling oil.

The amazed Turks watch Barabas writhing and screaming for help. Barabas makes a death-moment confession to all his crimes, admits he was going to massacre the Turks, and dies:

Die, life! fly, soul! tongue, curse thy fill, and die!

The Calymath rallies his entourage and says they will fly. They won’t get far, says Ferneze: the trumpet they heard was the signal for the outhouse to be blown up and the entire Turkish army liquidated. Calymath is appalled. Ferneze blames it all on the machinations of the Jew. Now he explains he will hold Calymath hostage, until his father pays the reparations necessary to restore Malta to its former state.

And the play ends on that note: the Christian governor, Ferneze has outwitted both the fiendish ‘Jew’ – seeing him come to a richly deserved end – and the warlike Turk, come out on top and won the day for Christian Malta. Hooray!

Thoughts

Obviously, The Jew of Malta is a garish and extreme entertainment, in some ways not unlike a pantomime where the audience is encouraged to boo and hiss every time the baddie comes onstage. Marlowe’s aim was obviously to create the villainest of villains, as Tamburlaine had been the most megalomaniac of rulers.

Giving him a villainous sidekick was sort of obvious, but the character of the ruthless Muslim, Ithamore, is inspired. They egg each other on to increasingly extreme outrages while the audience hiss and boo them like Alan Rickman playing the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood, and Ithamore’s scenes with fellow lowlifes Bellamira and Pilia-Borza, are very much played for pantomime laughs, including Pilia-Borza’s ridiculous sense of himself as tall and knightly when he is – according to Barabas – a gangling piece of war wreckage, and Bellamira’s absurd declarations of love.

Anyway, all this garish and crowd-pleasing comedy is why it’s not worth bothering with the play’s many inconsistencies and illogicalities, let alone considering it as a ‘moral analysis’ of anything.

The most glaring plot fault is the notion that Barabas is motivated entirely by revenge for being reduced to utter poverty… and yet by act 4 he is pretty much restored to his former position of super-wealth, having bought a house bigger than the governor’s and, as he tells the friars, once again having investments in ships bringing goods from round the Mediterranean. I.e. the real engine of his revenge has disappeared. It is a theatrical illusion, a motive which is required to quickly set the plot in motion and then just as quickly dropped.

As for the end, it is a wonderful piece of over-the-top theatrical sadism, a Hammer House of Horror, a London Dungeon level of populist, tub-thumping poetic justice, no doubt cheered to the rooftops by the very groundlings Barabas had been boasting to only minutes before.

Historical footnote – the Knights of St John and the Turkish threat

The Order of the Knights of Malta was founded in 1048, when a group of Christian merchants were given permission by the Egyptians to run a hospital in Jerusalem to care for Christian pilgrims travelling to the Holy City. The First Crusade captured Jerusalem in 1098 and the organisation running the hospital, by now called the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, expanded to provide armed escorts for pilgrims, becoming known as the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem.

When the Holy Land fell to the Saracens in 1291, the Order of St John (popularly known as the Hospitallers) moved their
headquarters to the island of Cyprus, from which the order continued to protect pilgrims travelling to Palestine by sea.

The Knights bought the island of Rhodes in 1310. In 1523 the Ottoman Turks laid siege of the island and after six months, the Knights were forced to surrender but were permitted to leave Rhodes with full military honours.

Meanwhile, the island of Malta came into the ownership of the Crown of Aragon in 1282 and passed into the control of the Holy Roman Emperor. In 1530 the Emperor Charles V granted Malta to the Knights of St. John who had been forced to abandon Rhodes in 1523. From that point the order took the name by which it is most familiarly known, the Knights of Malta. These are the knights who are advising governor Ferneze in The Jew of Malta.

Malta was repeatedly besieged by the Ottoman Turks but never fell to them (as they repeatedly tried to capture Venice). It had been besieged in 1565, the year after Marlowe was born and 25 or so years before the play was performed. In 1569 the Ottomans captured Crete and in 1570 Cyprus. That said, the Turks’ seemingly unstoppable advance was stalled at the sea Battle of Lepanto, where an alliance of European powers defeated the Ottoman navy.

It’s worth pointing out that some 12,000 Christian slaves – of the 37,000 slaves chained in the Turkish galleys – were liberated during and after the battle. Not all slaves were black.

The Muslim Turkish threat to Europe was still very real during Marlowe’s lifetime. So Marlowe’s depiction of Ithamore isn’t picking on a helpless ‘minority’ but a caricature of a race who were threatening to seize control of the Mediterranean and invade Europe. It was as if, during the Cold War, a comic playwright created a fiendish Russian communist who took every opportunity to criticise and scheme against ‘capitalist running dogs’, ‘reactionary troglodytes’, ‘bourgeois pigs’ and so on.

Different values, ideologies and buzzwords – but the same basic structure that an overwhelming military threat to civilisation from the East was invoked and then neutralised through theatrical representation and, in this case, crude caricature.


Related links

  • The Jew of Malta This excellent website gives you a choice of reading the play script unencumbered by notes, or a very comprehensively annotated text full of fascinating facts.

Marlowe’s works

Christopher Marlowe (1564 – 93)

Christopher Marlowe was one of the original bad boy rebels. He lived fast, died young (aged 29) and left a beautiful corpus of exhilarating plays and sensuous poetry. Marlowe’s half dozen plays are the first to use blank verse, demonstrating its power and flexibility, and so can be said to have established the entire format of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre.

Early life

Marlowe was the son of a Canterbury shoemaker. There’s a record of his being baptised on 26 February 1564. He won a scholarship to King’s School, Canterbury, then another to Corpus Christi College Cambridge where he was awarded a degree in 1584. However the authorities hesitated to award him an MA in 1587 because of rumours that he had spent time abroad, at Rheims, consorting with English Catholic exiles who were ordained as Catholic priests there before being smuggled back into England. If true, this amounted to treason. However, there’s a record of a letter being sent from the Privy Council to the Cambridge authorities to dispel this rumour and confirm that Marlowe had done ‘good service’ to the Queen. What service? To this day nobody knows, but it has prompted speculation for over 400 years that Marlowe was, at the tender age of 23, an Elizabethan spy.

The plays

Marlowe came to London and almost immediately established himself as a major playwright. He wrote six plays in his six years as a public playwright before his early death. To this day, there is debate and disagreement about the order they were written in, though most scholars agree on the following order:

  • Dido, Queen of Carthage (c. 1585–1587)
  • Tamburlaine, Part I (c. 1587); Part II (c. 1587–88)
  • The Jew of Malta (c. 1589–1590)
  • Doctor Faustus (c. 1588–1592)
  • Edward the Second (c. 1592)
  • The Massacre at Paris (c. 1589–1593)

Massive success

Put simply, Marlow established blank verse as the standard medium for Elizabethan plays, an enormous literary achievement. To start reading Dido is to be immediately swept away by the combination of power and sensuality, the swaggering boom and lushness of what Ben Jonson called Marlowe’s ‘mighty line’.

But not only that, his most famous plays (Tamburlaine and Faustus in particular) depict protagonists of such grotesque and visionary ambition, who express their views in verse so viscerally powerful and compelling, that they established a kind of benchmark of imaginative achievement. His protagonists dominated the stage and thrilled audiences in an entirely new way, showing what theatre was capable of.

Marlowe’s plays were tremendously successful in his day, helped by the imposing stage presence of his lead actor, Edward Alleyn, the lead actor of the acting company Marlowe wrote for – the Admiral’s Men. Alleyn was unusually tall for the time and gave commanding performances of the bombastic roles of Tamburlaine, Faustus and Barabas (the protagonist of The Jew of Malta).

Bad boy

The obscure squabble about his Cambridge MA was just a taster for a short life packed with trouble.

Prison Marlowe was party to a fatal quarrel involving his neighbours and the poet Thomas Watson in Norton Folgate and was held in Newgate Prison for at least a fortnight in 1589.

Arrest In 1592 Marlowe was arrested in the English garrison town of Flushing (Vlissingen) in the Netherlands, for alleged involvement in the counterfeiting of coins, presumably related to the activities of seditious Catholics. He was sent to the Lord Treasurer (Burghley), but no charge or imprisonment resulted maybe – again – because he was on official spying business.

Controversy His plays sailed close to the wind. The intensity of Dr Faustus led to accusations that Marlowe himself indulged in witchcraft and magic. Edward II presents the same-sex love of the king and his favourite Piers Gaveston in an unusually favourable light.

Atheism Worse was the accusation of atheism, technically illegal at the time. In May 1593 anonymous posters were put up around London threatening Protestant refugees from France and the Netherlands. One of these was in rhymed iambic pentameter, contained allusions to several of Marlowe’s plays and was signed, ‘Tamburlaine’. On 11 May the Privy Council ordered the arrest of those responsible for the libels and they made a start with Marlowe’s colleague Thomas Kyd, who was arrested. When his lodgings were searched a three-page fragment of a heretical tract was found.

In a letter to the Keeper of the Great Seal, Sir John Puckering, Kyd claimed the document belonged to Marlowe, with whom he had shared a writing room two years earlier. In a follow-up letter Kyd – obviously seeking to exonerate himself – described Marlowe as blasphemous, disorderly, holding treasonous opinions, being an irreligious reprobate and ‘intemperate & of a cruel hart’.

A warrant for Marlowe’s arrest was issued on 18 May and he was tracked to the country mansion of Sir Thomas Walsingham, whose father was a first cousin of the late Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster – more fuel for all those who consider Marlowe to have been a spy throughout his career. Marlowe presented himself to the Council on 20 May and was instructed to ‘give his daily attendance on their Lordships, until he shall be licensed to the contrary’.

Details of his death Ten days later, 30 May 1593, Marlowe was killed. He spent all day in Eleanor Bull’s house in Deptford talking with three other men. In the evening, after supper, the four men quarrelled, one of them Ingram Frizer drew a dagger and stabbed Marlowe to death. At the inquest, Frizer said he did it in self defence, all three had worked for Walsingham at some point or another and were acquitted. Within a few weeks Frizer returned to Walsingham’s service.

So was it really a drunken brawl, did something Marlowe say genuinely offend the others? Or was it an assassination to hush up something Marlowe may or may not have been going to divulge to the Privy Council, maybe to exonerate himself from the charges arising from the atheistical and heretical document Kyd attributed to him? Or was it just a fight which got out of hand.

We will never know.

Baines’s testimony At the time of Marlowe’s arrest in Flushing, evidence had been presented against him by one Richard Baines who the governor of Flushing identified as an enemy of Marlowe’s. After Marlowe was arrested in May 1593, Baines sent the authorities a note ‘concerning his damnable judgment of religion, and scorn of God’s word’. Baines attributes to Marlowe a total of eighteen items such as:

  • the first beginning of Religion was only to keep men in awe
  • Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest
  • the woman of Samaria and her sister were whores and that Christ knew them dishonestly’, ‘St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned always in his bosom’, and ‘that he used him as the sinners of Sodom’.

The School of Night Baines went on to claim that whatever company Marlowe came into, he sought to persuade people to his atheistical point of view. This helped bolster the legend of what later generations have termed ‘The School of Night’ referring to a group of intellectuals centred on Sir Walter Raleigh supposedly including Marlowe, George Chapman, Matthew Roydon and Thomas Harriot among others. But once again it is based on the slender evidence of Richard Baines, a paid informer who, in the unsworn deposition mentioned above, claimed he had heard from another that Marlowe had ‘read the Atheist lecture to Sr. Walter Raleigh [and] others’. Rumour and gossip from a stated enemy, in other words.

Gay The damning list of atheistical statements attributed to Marlowe in the Baines document overlaps with accusations that the playwright was gay, including such gossip as that Marlowe said: ‘All those who like not boys and tobacco be fools’ (which seems a very reasonable sentiment).

In fact, apart from Baines’s statement, there is no hard evidence about Marlowe’s sexuality either way, and some scholars reject reports of his homosexuality altogether. Those who want it to be true quote selected moments from his works in which characters give a favourable account of male same-sex desire (the lengthy homoerotic description of handsome young Leander in the poem Hero and Leander, the opening of Dido Queen of Carthage which finds Zeus flirting very obviously with the beautiful young boy Ganymede, in Edward II the entire treatment of the relationshiip between the king and his favourite, Piers Gaveston).

Maybe. As with the spy theories and the numerous theories which have sprung up as to the real cause of his death, it is clear that Marlowe –  like so many authors, in fact like so many eminent figures from the past – is a kind of Rorschach test, a complicated and contradictory figure onto whom later readers can project whatever fantasy feeds their needs.

Was William Shakespeare really Christopher Marlow? There’s even a group of people who believe that Marlowe faked his own death and resumed writing under the pseudonym William Shakespeare (the two playwrights were, after all, born in the same year).

People – as the internet age has shown us more clearly than ever before – will believe anything.

Banned As well as plays, early in his career Marlowe wrote some poetry, most impressively the short epyllion Hero and Leander and a translation of the Latin poet Ovid’s Amores. Copies of this latter were publicly burned as offensive in 1599, as part of Archbishop Whitgift’s crackdown on offensive material. Even after his death he carried on being a bad boy.


Marlowe’s works

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse (1927)

A wolf of the Steppes that had lost its way and strayed into the towns and the life of the herd, a more striking image could not be found for his shy loneliness, his savagery, his restlessness, his homesickness, his homelessness. (Steppenwolf, page 22)

Brief summary

Part one Steppenwolf was Hesse’s tenth novel. It starts in a fairly low-key, realistic style and for the first hundred or so pages is an extended exercise in self-pity, as the self-described ‘Steppenwolf’ dwells at length on his unhappiness, his broken marriage, his abandonment, loneliness and social isolation.

Part two However, about half way through the book he meets a woman, Hermine, a fun-loving dancer and courtesan at a popular local bar, and she completely turns his life around. Hermine introduces him to dancing and jazz music, providing him with a wonderfully sensuous lover (Maria) who reveals the hitherto unsuspected glories of sexual pleasure, and introducing him to a super-relaxed jazz player (Pablo), who smiles wisely, says little, and offers a variety of recreational drugs, including cocaine.

Part three And then, in the final forty pages or so, the book turns into a really delirious sequence of fantasy scenes, played out in THE MAGIC THEATRE (“For Madmen Only; Admittance Charge – Your Mind”), where each doorway opens into a new, extravagant, hallucinatory scenario.

The Magic Theatre almost certainly doesn’t exist because the sequence introducing it begins with Pablo, Hermine and the narrator sitting round in a room, after a long night dancing the night away at the town’s annual ball, drinking some of Pablo’s drug-spiked liquor and smoking drug-spiked cigarettes.

After an extraordinary series of fantasies (which include taking part in ‘the war against the machines’; reliving all the love affairs of his entire life but which, this time, are all positive, life-enhancing experiences; and meeting Mozart, who delivers a lecture about eternity and time) the novel ends without the narrative returning us to the ‘normal’ world.

One of the fantasy scenes involved our hero meeting a man sitting on the floor behind an immense chess board with many more squares than usual. This player prompts the Steppenwolf to take out of his pockets not just the two sides of his personality, but the hundreds and hundreds of aspects which Goethe and Mozart and Hermine and all the other wisdom figures in the novel have told him about. The player then arranges these avatars onto his board and plays a complex game with them. Moral: Life is just a game, it’s up to you how you play it.

And that is how the novel ends – not with the character returning sober and hungover to the ordinary, mundane reality it started in; it ends with the Steppenwolf taking up all these multiple aspects of his life, and determined ‘to begin the game afresh’, to live life in the light of everything he’s learned.

And it is this final, mad whirligig of fantasy stories – deeply mixed up with themes and ideas from the rest of the novel about suicide, death pacts, love, sex, the meaning of life, the multiple aspects of the human mind and so on – which, I think, leave a powerful, indeed bewildering impression on the reader’s mind, and whose garish extremity completely eclipses the mundane, realistic opening half of the novel.

You put it down feeling genuinely inspired, thinking, Wow, all these other lives are possible – sex and love and drugs and jazz and dancing and multiple ways of seeing not only the world, but your own life and experience – it’s all there waiting for you ‘to begin the game afresh’.

On the word ‘Steppenwolf’

The use of the single word ‘Steppenwolf’ in the English title makes it sound like a name (with distant echoes, for those of us of a certain age, of the English rock band which called itself Steppenwolf, and whose big hit was, appropriately enough, ‘Born To be Wild’).

But the title in German is The Steppenwolf, which makes it clear that the title doesn’t refer to one person’s proper name, but to a type of animal. In fact, Der Steppenwolf is German for ‘the Steppe Wolf’, also known as the Caspian Wolf, a distinct species of wolf which inhabits the steppes of southern Russia and the Caucasus.

Moreover, although the central character refers to himself as ‘the Steppenwolf’, the treatise about Steppenwolves embedded in the first part of the novel states quite clearly that there are thousands of Steppenwolves i.e. men who consider themselves part-sociable man, part-lonely, haunted wolf.

Part one – Steppenwolf’s self-pity

1. The nephew’s account

The thirty-page introduction is written in a muted, sober, naturalistic style by an unnamed youngish man. The nephew’s aunt rents out furnished rooms and one day, a few years earlier, a scruffy, nervous, 50-year-old man with short cropped hair (p.7) presents himself as a lodger. Against her nephew’s advice, the aunt lets out a bedroom and a living room to this stranger.

Over the first thirty or so pages, this nephew shares with us his impressions of the new lodger, whose name is Harry Haller. Haller refers to himself in conversation so often as ‘the Steppenwolf, that the narrator ends up using that name as well.

The nephew describes various encounters with the Steppenwolf, within his aunt’s house and sometimes in the local town, as he slowly forms an opinion about him. This is that Haller is a rebel. He doesn’t have a job but appears to have independent income. He drinks heavily and keeps anti-social hours (goes to bed late, gets up late). His bedroom is full of bottles of booze, but also of books by fashionably earnest and intense writers such as Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche, as well as photos from magazines and watercolour paintings which he himself paints.

The nephew comes to think of the Steppenwolf as a man torn between two extremes – sometimes a savage, angry, ironic loner; but at other times a perfectly sociable and civilised man, who the nephew bumps into attending a classical concert. He is defined by this tearing dichotomy in his soul.

One day the Steppenwolf packs his bags and goes. The nephew and aunt never hear from him again. But he leaves behind a manuscript diary, a sort of journal, and it is this manuscript which makes up the rest of the book, about 220 pages in my Penguin edition.

2. Harry Haller’s manuscript

The bulk of the book consists of this manuscript written by its protagonist, a middle-aged man named Harry Haller, which he leaves to the nephew when he leaves the house, and which the nephew finds himself arranging for publication and writing a short introduction to.

Broadly speaking, as described above, this manuscript is in two parts:

  1. Part one – Haller wanders the town feeling inconsolably sorry for himself
  2. Part two – Haller meets life-affirming Hermine who takes him on a whirlwind journey of self-discovery

In the first half, what comes over at great length is that the Steppenwolf is a loner, an outsider, a man who thinks his mind was made for great heights, for great achievements, who looks down on ‘ordinary’ people and the complacent comforts of the bourgeois middle classes, a man whose penetrating gaze has pierced to the heart of the human condition, no less:

The Steppenwolf’s look pierced our whole epoch, its whole overwrought activity, the whole surge and strife, the whole vanity, the whole superficial play of a shallow, opinionated intellectuality. And alas! the look went still deeper, went far below the faults, defects and hopelessness of our time, our intellect, our culture alone. It went right to the heart of all humanity, it bespoke eloquently in a single second the whole despair of a thinker, of one who knew the full worth and meaning of man’s life. It said: “See what monkeys we are! Look, such is man!” and at once all renown, all intelligence, all the attainments of the spirit, all progress towards the sublime, the great and the enduring in man fell away and became a monkey’s trick!

This is from the nephew’s account and shows the nephew falling under the Steppenwolf’s sway, and tending to see the world through the eyes of this super-clever but super-sad loner.

Yet the Steppenwolf is a conflicted man, a man of two halves, for the outcast loner also desperately yearns for all the little bourgeois comforts. He loves the tidy potted plants on the landings of the trim little boarding house, and the clean hallways, and venerates Mozart.

The Steppenwolf’s curse is that whichever mood he’s in – over-educated angst-ridden loner or polite, music-loving bourgeois – the other half of his personality consistently sabotages it. He can never be at rest.

This basic duality, and the Steppenwolf’s inability to settle his curse of being permanently at war with himself, recurs again and again, both in the nephew’s introduction and in the main text:

I saw that Haller was a genius of suffering and that in the meaning of many sayings of Nietzsche he had created within himself with positive genius a boundless and frightful capacity for pain. I saw at the same time that the root of his pessimism was not world-contempt but self-contempt; for however mercilessly he might annihilate institutions and persons in his talk he never spared himself. It was always at himself first and foremost that he aimed the shaft, himself first and foremost whom he hated and despised.

You can see why this kind of book would be a Bible to troubled teenagers and students. It perfectly captures that sense of being special, exceptional, blessed with superior wisdom and insight, of living a:

lonely, loveless, hunted, and thoroughly disorderly existence

And despising your comfortably bourgeois parents, poor drones who’ve never read Dostoyevsky or Nietzsche. Whereas you, the special soul who responds to Hesse’s book, have read the entire ‘How to be a tortured existentialist’ reading list, and so are blessed to wake up every morning feeling like a wild wanderer over the wide world, scorned of men and rejected by society.

And yet, and yet… deep down… at the same time… you don’t really want to leave home, where your mum can be relied on to do your washing and ironing and cooking and cleaning, and where there’s a nice hot meal every evening at teatime.

As Harry himself puts it:

‘But though I am a shabby old Steppenwolf, still I’m the son of a mother, and my mother too was a middle-class man’s wife and raised plants and took care to have her house and home as clean and neat and tidy as ever she could make it. All that is brought back to me by this breath of turpentine and by the araucaria, and so I sit down here every now and again; and I look into this quiet little garden of order and rejoice that such things still are.’ (p.20)

The two eras theory and ‘the sickness of our times’

The text is packed with sweeping generalisations about human nature and society, which read well but are of questionable practical use. Typical is a passage where Haller tells the nephew his theory about overlapping ages.

It interested me not because I think it’s true, but because something very like this idea of people tragically caught between two changing eras and marooned between two changing value systems underlies Hermann Broch’s immense trilogy of novels, The Sleepwalkers.

‘A man of the Middle Ages would detest the whole mode of our present-day life as something far more than horrible, far more than barbarous. Every age, every culture, every custom and tradition has its own character, its own weakness and its own strength, its beauties and ugliness; accepts certain sufferings as matters of course, puts up patiently with certain evils. Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap. A man of the Classical Age who had to live in medieval times would suffocate miserably just as a savage does in the midst of our civilisation. Now there are times when a whole generation is caught in this way between two ages, two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standard, no security, no simple acquiescence. Naturally, every one does not feel this equally strongly. A nature such as Nietzsche’s had to suffer our present ills more than a generation in advance. What he had to go through alone and misunderstood, thousands suffer today.’

I think this is questionable as a theory of history or historical change or historical eras. But where it is a little useful is as indirect evidence of just how widespread the feeling was in Weimar Germany that society’s values had collapsed:

a whole generation is caught…between two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standard, no security

This isn’t the only time the text confidently expands Haller’s feelings of confusion and unhappiness and projects them onto the whole world:

I see [Haller’s manuscript] as a document of the times, for Haller’s sickness of the soul, as I now know, is not the eccentricity of a single individual, but the sickness of the times themselves, the neurosis of that generation to which Haller belongs, a sickness, it seems, that by no means attacks the weak and worthless only but, rather, precisely those who are strongest in spirit and richest in gifts.

These records, however much or however little of real life may lie at the back of them, are not an attempt to disguise or to palliate this widespread sickness of our times. They are an attempt to present the sickness itself in its actual manifestation. They mean, literally, a journey through hell, a sometimes fearful, sometimes courageous journey through the chaos of a world whose souls dwell in darkness, a journey undertaken with the determination to go through hell from one end to the other, to give battle to chaos, and to suffer torture to the full. (p.27)

Ah, but it is hard to find this track of the divine in the midst of this life we lead, in this besotted humdrum age of spiritual blindness, with its architecture, its business, its politics, its men!

This kind of rhetoric sounds good, sounds wonderful if you’re of this kind of mindset, but means almost nothing.

Which generation has not been afflicted by a sense of collapse and confusion? We know this way of thinking was widespread among ancient Greek and Roman writers (‘O tempora, o mores’, meaning ‘Oh what times! Oh what customs!’  lamented the Roman orator Cicero in 70 BC). Anyone familiar with Anglo-Saxon or Norse literature knows that its characteristic genre is the elegy, a sense of irremediable loss of once glorious standards and values. The Middle Ages repeated these laments for a golden age, and any generation afflicted with plague (throughout the Middle Ages, Renaissance and into the early modern period) thought itself especially damned, especially punished for its sinfulness and moral laxity.

If you pick up any of the Victorian novelists or thinkers you will find them packed with laments for the collapse of civilised values (Thomas Carlyle was a leading offender, his 1829 essay Signs of The Times lamented ‘an artificial Morality, an artificial Wisdom, an artificial Society’), and most of the other Victorians lamented living in the sick world of frenetic activity which they find themselves plunged into.

In other words, this mood of lament for ‘the sickness of our times’ is one of the most consistent tropes in all Western literature, right up to and including the present day, with social media awash with laments that Donald Trump is the worst leader anywhere, ever, and the world is experiencing unprecedented horrors.

1. Actual corruption On one level the accusation is, of course, true. The grown-up, adult world is, once you’ve seen something of it, chaotic, confused and corrupt. It’s just that it’s always has been so, and young bookish men, raised on the beautifully clear and lucid works of the philosophers and poets, always end up disgusted to discover just how far short of those wonderful, inspiring works the actual world of marketing and business deals falls. The times are sick and corrupt. Thing is, they always have been.

2. Freudian interpretation Freud makes it simpler. He says everyone who thinks and writes like that is grieving for the lost certitudes of childhood, the warmth and simplicity of the nursery, when mummy and daddy protected you, and maintained a world of infant certainties, all gone, while you mope and moan about the sickness of the times.

3. A psychological interpretation And there is a third way of looking at this time-honoured trope, which is that it really boils down to saying that your times are special and that, as a result, you, the writer, and you, the reader who is aware enough to realise just how sick the times are, well, you also are special – blessed with a superior mind and perceptions but cursed, oh alackaday, to live through such a sick and chaotic era.

The hidden ‘appeal to specialness’ explains why these kinds of passages start off being about this generation or society as a whole, but have a tendency then to focus in on specially sensitive and wise individuals who are set against ‘the sickness of the times’, wise and sensitive souls who are doomed to suffer, precisely because they are so spiritual and superior and wise and noble.

You can see this tendency in the first passage I quoted which starts out lamenting whole epochs in history, and the collapse of values in our time, before moving on to worship an exception – a hero who stands out against it – in this case, Nietzsche, portrayed as an especially sensitive and prophetic soul.

And praise of Nietzsche leads, by an easy transition, into the idea that everyone who reads Nietzsche – reads and really understands Nietzsche – people like you and me dear reader, the elect, the elite, the special ones, that we are especially sensitive, what spiritual souls we are, that we, too are also condemned to suffer, suffer awfully, because of our special and superior sensitivity.

I am in truth the Steppenwolf that I often call myself; that beast astray who finds neither home nor joy nor nourishment in a world that is strange and incomprehensible to him. (p.39)

We – you and me and Nietzsche and the Steppenwolf – are not like ‘normal’ people, ‘ordinary’ people, ‘little’ people, those uninformed, ignorant, narrow-minded philistines who are happy with our fallen age, content in these sick times, quite at home in our degraded society and its paltry pleasures, those little people who, sadly, do not share our superior insights and sensitivity, and whose silly superficial pleasures we cannot lower ourselves to understand. The Steppenwolf is not slow to skewer the little people:

Among the common run of men there are many of little personality and stamped with no deep impress of fate…

I cannot understand what pleasures and joys they are that drive people to the overcrowded railways and hotels, into the packed cafés with the suffocating and oppressive music, to the Bars and variety entertainments, to World Exhibitions, to the Corsos. I cannot understand nor share these joys…

At every other step were placards and posters with their various attractions, Ladies’ Orchestra, Variété, Cinema, Ball. But none of these was for me. They were for ‘everybody’, for those normal persons whom I saw crowding every entrance…

It has always been so and always will be. Time and the world, money and power belong to the small people and the shallow people. To the rest, to the real men belongs nothing. Nothing but death…

There is much more in this vein, written in a very persuasive melodramatic style. All in all, the first half of the novel is a kind of handbook for troubled teenagers.

But to the older reader, there is also something broadly comic about this self-dramatising, self-pitying, late-Romantic pose. And it is indeed very, very Romantic – Hesse’s phraseology is often drenched in unashamed romanticism which wouldn’t have been out of place in the 1830s or the fin-de-siecle 1890s:

How I used to love the dark, sad evenings of late autumn and winter, how eagerly I imbibed their moods of loneliness and melancholy when wrapped in my cloak I strode for half the night through rain and storm, through the leafless winter landscape, lonely enough then too, but full of deep joy, and full of poetry which later I wrote down by candlelight sitting on the edge of my bed! All that was past now. The cup was emptied and would never be filled again. (p.37)

It is as helpless and self-pitying as Shelley.

Treatise on the Steppenwolf (p.51-80)

Only twenty or so pages into what purports to be Harry Haller’s manuscript, he describes following a mysterious street-seller in the midnight streets of the unnamed town where all this takes place, a man who turns and hurriedly stuffs into Harry’s hands a little book, then is gone.

When Haller looks, he sees it is A Treatise on the Steppenwolf – Not For Everyone. (Note the ‘Not For Everyone’ – here as throughout the first half of the book, the implication is that only the special ones, the sensitive ones, the élite, those who know care allowed to share these sensitivie feelings and insights.)

This turns out to be another description of Harry Haller, but presented as if written by some kind of omniscient authority, almost a naturalist. it is, in effect, the third text about him (after the nephew’s description and Harry’s own memoir) and one of the interests of the book is this multi-textuality or multi-dimensionality i.e. the differing perspectives given by a) the nephew’s account b) Haller’s manuscript c) the Treatise, and then d) the mad fantasia at the end.

The Treatise repeats the ideas of the previous sections, that the Steppenwolf is half-beast, half-man, but of a specially superior lofty type. He is explicitly compared with the greatest artists of the ages. He looks down on ordinary, ‘normal’ people.

The Steppenwolf stood entirely outside the world of convention, since he had neither family life nor social ambitions. He felt himself to be single and alone, whether as a queer fellow and a hermit in poor health, or as a person removed from the common run of men by the prerogative of talents that had something of genius in them. Deliberately, he looked down upon the ordinary man and was proud that he was not one. (p.62)

Again and again his individuality and his independence are emphasised, and we know from all his writings that these are the core values which Hesse valued:

With this was bound up his need for loneliness and independence. There was never a man with a deeper and more passionate craving for independence than he…

He was ever more independent. He took orders from no man and ordered his ways to suit no man. Independently and alone, he decided what to do and to leave undone. For every strong man attains to that which a genuine impulse bids him seek…

Overuse of the word ‘hell’

All the characters are too free and easy in describing their self-centred depression as ‘hell’. Having nursed a parent with dementia, and then cared for children with mental health issues, I now know that even when I’m feeling depressed or guilty myself, it is very very very far from ‘hell’, and nothing compared to what they were going through.

Thus I couldn’t help despising the nephew and then the Steppenwolf for throwing around this serious word so glibly, for cheapening it:

  • These records… mean, literally, a journey through hell, a sometimes fearful, sometimes courageous journey through the chaos of a world whose souls dwell in darkness, a journey undertaken with the determination to go through hell from one end to the other [no they don’t]
  • Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap…
  • Haller belongs to those who have been caught between two ages, who are outside of all security and simple acquiescence. He belongs to those whose fate it is to live the whole riddle of human destiny heightened to the pitch of a personal torture, a personal hell.
  • He who has known these days of hell may be content indeed with normal half-and-half days like today
  • Despising the bourgeoisie, and yet belonging to it, they add to its strength and glory; for in the last resort they have to share their beliefs in order to live. The lives of these infinitely numerous persons [the Steppenwolves] make no claim to the tragic; but they live under an evil star in a quite considerable affliction; and in this hell their talents ripen and bear fruit
  • And supposing the Steppenwolf were to succeed, and he has gifts and resources in plenty, in decocting this magic draught in the sultry mazes of his hell, his rescue would be assured.
  • And every occasion when a mask was torn off, an ideal broken, was preceded by this hateful vacancy and stillness, this deathly constriction and loneliness and unrelatedness, this waste and empty hell of lovelessness and despair, such as I had now to pass through once more.
  • How had this paralysis crept over me so slowly and furtively, this hatred against myself and everybody, this deep-seated anger and obstruction of all feelings, this filthy hell of emptiness and despair.
  • And since it appeared that I could not bear my loneliness any longer either, since my own company had become so unspeakably hateful and nauseous, since I struggled for breath in a vacuum and suffocated in hell, what way out was left me? There was none.
  • Then the world would be a desert once more, one day as dreary and worthless as the last, and the deathly stillness and wretchedness would surround me once more on all sides with no way out from this hell of silence except the razor.

Silly man.

The rebel

In this constant sense of being an outsider, Steppenwolf has a lot in common with the writings of Albert Camus, who wrote his classic novel, The Outsider fifteen years later (and mention of Camus makes you realise he is situated smack in the middle of the tradition of literary ‘outsiders’ which flourished, more on the Continent than in England, which would include Kierkegaard and Nitzsche, just for starters.)

According to the Treatise, the numerous ‘outsiders’ of which the Steppenwolf is merely one, play a vital role in maintaining the boring bourgeois world of law and order, as explained in this typically convoluted paragraph:

The vital force of the bourgeoisie resides by no means in the qualities of its normal members, but in those of its extremely numerous “outsiders” who by virtue of the extensiveness and elasticity of its ideals it can embrace. There is always a large number of strong and wild natures who share the life of the fold. Our Steppenwolf, Harry, is a characteristic example. He who is developed far beyond the level possible to the bourgeois, he who knows the bliss of meditation no less than the gloomy joys of hatred and self-hatred, he who despises law, virtue and common sense, is nevertheless captive to the bourgeoisie and cannot escape it. And so all through the mass of the real bourgeoisie are interposed numerous layers of humanity, many thousands of lives and minds, every one of whom, it is true, would have outgrown it and have obeyed the call to unconditioned life, were they not fastened to it by sentiments of their childhood and infected for the most part with its less intense life; and so they are kept lingering, obedient and bound by obligation and service. (p.65)

It’s eloquent, isn’t it? Eloquent and articulate and very readable and plausible and yet, in my opinion, not particularly useful.

I thought of Camus because as well as this hymn to The Outsider, the Treatise also contains an extended section about Suicide and suicides and the suicide mentality (pp.58-59).

According to the Treatise, ‘suicides’ are not defined by the act itself, but by a sensibility for whom suicide is always a realistic option. They have to fight against it as the kleptomanic fights against his urge to steal everything. the thought of suicide is a constant companion and way out which pops up every time the ‘suicide-minded are blocked, frustrated, embarrassed or humiliated.

Compare and contrast Camus’ lengthy essay about suicide, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). It’s not the specific of the ideas, it’s the fact that both writers thought it worthwhile devoting extensive though to the subject which is revealing.

The final section of the Treatise berates Harry for being so simple-minded as to think man is made up of just two souls, in his case wolf and man. Man is made up of thousands of parts and pieces, man is a kaleidoscope of confused and clashing wishes, dreams, desires, intentions, plans, moods and memories and emotions.

The author of the Treatise closes by dwelling at some length on Eastern philosophy and Buddhism for indicating the complex nature of the human soul, and how hard it is to fully own and possess it in order to transcend it and encompass the All.

Back to sad Harry

Then the Treatise ends and it’s back to sad Harry.

Granting that I had in the course of all my painful transmutations made some invisible and unaccountable gain, I had had to pay dearly for it; and at every turn my life was harsher, more difficult, lonely and perilous.

Things happen:

  • Harry wanders round town feeling sorry for himself
  • he bumps into an old acquaintance, a professor of Eastern philosophy, who invites him for dinner that evening at 8.30pm, throwing him into paroxysms and anxiety and self-loathing and, sure enough, he makes a horlicks of it by getting into an argument about a portrait of Goethe the professor and his wife have which our hero thinks is too sentimental
  • Harry storms out of their house and wanders the streets, as usual giving into thoughts of shame and guilt and suicide, eventually plunging into a noisy smoky inn
  • here he sits next to a fancy women (a prostitute?) who quickly gets his measure, within a few minutes she realises that Harry is a helpless baby who needs to be looked after, who needs mothering, who has memorised his Nietzsche and is an expert on despair and hell and inauthenticity, but doesn’t know how to talk to a girl or dance, who knows, in fact, nothing about actual life
  • Harry falls asleep at the pub table and dreams a dream of Goethe, who starts off lofty and admirable but slowly becomes more fanciful and jokey, the medal on his chest turning into flowers as he explains that one must escape time, time is an illusion, in heaven eternity is a brief moment just long enough to tell a joke (reminding the reader of the reflections about time in Siddhartha)

After a week of anxiety worthy of a 16-year-old on his first date, having washed and dressed in new finery (new shoelaces!) he returns to the Black Eagle pub and meets the pretty flirtatious slender young girl there.

For a moment she reminds him of his boyhood friend Herman and he hazards a guess that her name is Hermine, the female equivalent. She nods delightedly but who knows, she is an experienced prostitute, maybe she’s lying.

[Rereading The New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic 1918-33 ed. Stephanie Barron and Sabine Eckmann (2015), I was struck by the way all the essays in it at least mention, if not make their central theme the issue of gender-bending, gender alterity and gender fluidity in Weimar Germany. the book includes numerous photos and paintings of women, especially, dressed in men’s clothing, or with slender boyish figures and bob haircuts, all of which I was reminded of in the short moment when Hermine reminds Harry of a boy. He even asks if she’s a boy, and she jokes that, yes, she might be a boy in woman’s clothing (p.127). And a lot later, towards the climax of the book, at the big town ball, Hermine arrives dressed as a man, in a gentleman’s smart suit and fools even Harry into thinking she’s a male.]

Part two – Hermine

It isn’t formally divided into a new part but in practice, from the moment he meets Hermine, the book takes on a steadily different tone. In a nutshell, Hermine teaches Harry in a hundred and one ways to stop being so self-pitying and self-centred, to come out of himself, to engage with the world, to lighten up, to live a little (the variety of phrases which spring to mind indicate how widespread this injunction has become in the English-speaking world).

Almost immediately Hermine realises that despite all his fancy learning Harry is basically a child. He needs to be mothered. I thought I’d been reasonably clever in spotting this within a page or so but she then goes on to make it super-explicit quite a few times, telling him he’s a baby and needs a mother and she’s going to mother him. She makes him swear he will obey her in all things, so there’s an echo of the mistress-slave relationship in the world of S&M, or BDSM as it’s called nowadays.

Hermine teaches Harry to dance and like jazz. Characteristically, Harry initially hates both and nurses a long-standing dislike of jazz, and is ready at the drop of a hat to pontificate about the greatness of Bach and Handel and Mozart.

[Jazz] was repugnant to me… It was the music of decline. There must have been such music in Rome under the later emperors. Compared with Bach and Mozart and real music it was, naturally, a miserable affair; but so was all our art, all our thought, all our makeshift culture in comparison with real culture…

(In an interesting footnote, Hesse makes his character dislike Beethoven and really dislike both Brahms and Wagner: by their time music had, in his opinion, become too clotted and heavy; he prefers the infinite lightness and grace of Mozart).

Anyway, this is where the saxophonist Pablo comes in. ‘A dark and good-looking youth of Spanish or South American origin’, Pablo is effortlessly cool, rarely speaks but, when the band has finished playing a set comes and sits with Hermine and Harry and listens in silence while Harry rants on about Bach and tonal colour and harmonies.

Finally Pablo breaks his silence and reveals that he knows all about Bach and counterpoint but that is not his job. He is paid to play music which makes people tap their toes, and then their legs, and get to their feet, and start dancing, and lose their inhibitions and be happy.

The text tells us that ‘A new dance, a fox trot, with the title “Yearning,” had swept the world that winter’. Here it is. This is what these wild characters are jitterbugging to, getting drunk, taking cocaine, clasping each other tightly and dancing the night away to:

Hermine may become Harry’s mistress, but she doesn’t have sex with him. That, she says, is reserved for a special day, when he has finally completely fallen in love with her. Meanwhile, Hermine fits Harry up with a gorgeous dancer at the club, Maria, sleek and sexy in her velvet dress. With her Harry rediscovers not just sex – he had sex with his wife – but a magnificent new world of sex, of all kinds of subtle sensualities, of looks and poses and aspects and ways of touching and kissing which are completely new to him.

In other words, his body is brought to life just as much as his soul. The Steppenwolf rediscovers the radical innocence of sex (p.183-4).

The book continues to be packed with ideas and issues except that now he is not mulling them over in isolation and stewing in self-pity. He gets to discuss them with Hermine, with Pablo and with Maria, all of whom shed interesting and unexpected lights on the Steppenwolf’s obsessions. Thus there is:

War An extended discussion about war – we learn that the Steppenwolf was a writer and wrote an article during the Great War calling for moderation and less hatred, and was roundly condemned by conservatives and militarists and subjected to a campaign of hate and vilification. We know from his biography that exactly the same thing happened to Hesse himself, in fact this is straight autobiography. Harry is full of foreboding that all part of sciety – politicians, journalists, business – are greedily galloping towards the next war, which will be far worse than the last. Very prophetic. In fact Hesse left Germany to live in Switzerland precisely because he was a pacifist and wanted to dissociate himself from his countrymen’s crude militarism and lust for revenge. (pp.228ff)

German intellectuals There is a damning page where Harry harshly criticises the entire German intellectual class for their ineffectiveness. (p.159)

Weimar sexuality At their very first meeting, Hermine strikes him for a moment for her boyishness, and this theme recurs for the rest of the book. At the Town Ball Hermine arrives dressed as a man. But at one of the druggy sessions with Pablo and Hermine, Harry feels someone kiss his closed eyelids and knows it’s Pablo and doesn’t mind. In fact Pablo stonedly suggests a threesome, explaining how wonderful it would be, but Harry can’t quite bring himself to go that far. On one of the occasions when Harry discusses Maria with Hermine, Hermine makes it quite clear that she knows Maria is exceptional in bed because… she’s slept with her too. You can almost feel Harry’s mind being expanded. This is an aspect of Hesse I whole-heartedly approve, his completely relaxed, candid and honest attitude to sexuality. It seems extraordinarily ahead of his time, the 1920s. Then again, it was the Weimar Republic, where anything went. (Hesse on Weimar women p.162, and bisexuality p.194, 196.)

Time and eternity For me the best thing about Siddhartha was the profound discussion of time, what it means to be trapped in time, as we all are, and what it might mean to be able to escape time. What life, or existence, would feel like if there was no time. This theme is picked up here again, and is, for me at any rate, a particularly thought-provoking aspect of Hesse’s philosophy.

Part three – The Magic Theatre

As described in my brief summary, the book processes through these successive awakening of Harry’s narcissistic and self-pitying soul – jazz, sex, dancing, flirting, sensuality, relaxing, stopping being aloof but plunging into life – before heading towards the giddy climax of the Magic Theatre.

Harry attends the annual Town Ball in the town hall which has been converted into a catacomb of entertainments, with different bands playing in different rooms. This epic night of dancing and debauchery is vividly describe, it sounds almost like a rave, he makes it sound like London nightclubs I used to go to, where you dance all night long and eventually lose yourself completely in the throng, in the great mass of pulsing bodies, leave your poor pitiful ego behind and join a larger rhythm and music.

Anyway, as dawn comes up and the last of the dancers finally stop shimmying and the band packs away its instruments, Pablo takes Harry and Hermine to a small drab room where he feeds them spiked booze and a jazz cigarette and then… takes them through a doorway and parts a plush curtain to present THE MAGIC THEATRE (“For Madmen Only; Admittance Charge – Your Mind”). It is like the curved corridor which runs behind the private boxes at a grand theatre, except that each door has a motto on it, indicating what you will experience inside, a little like Alice in Wonderland. These include:

ALL GIRLS ARE YOURS
ONE QUARTER IN THE SLOT

JOLLY HUNTING
GREAT HUNT IN AUTOMOBILES

MUTABOR
TRANSFORMATION INTO ANY ANIMAL OR PLANT YOU PLEASE

KAMASUTRAM
INSTRUCTION IN THE INDIAN ARTS OF LOVE
COURSE FOR BEGINNERS
FORTY-TWO DIFFERENT METHODS AND PRACTICES

DELIGHTFUL SUICIDE
YOU LAUGH YOURSELF TO BITS

DO YOU WANT TO BE ALL SPIRIT?
THE WISDOM OF THE EAST

DOWNFALL OF THE WEST
MODERATE PRICES. NEVER SURPASSED

COMPENDIUM OF ART
TRANSFORMATION FROM TIME INTO SPACE BY MEANS OF MUSIC

LAUGHING TEARS
CABINET OF HUMOUR

SOLITUDE MADE EASY
COMPLETE SUBSTITUTE FOR ALL FORMS OF SOCIABILITY.

GUIDANCE IN THE BUILDING UP OF THE PERSONALITY
SUCCESS GUARANTEED

And so Harry indulges in some of them – namely the car hunting one which is set in a future war between machines (cars) and men – All Girls Are Yours in which he relives every feeling and encounter he’s had with a girl or woman except that they all turn into beautiful love affairs instead of occasions for frustration and anger. Then he goes through the door marked:

MARVELLOUS TAMING OF THE STEPPENWOLF

Which isn’t such a good idea because he sees both man and wolf being pitifully tamed and humiliated.

He meets the chessplayer with a super-sized board who explains to Harry that he has not two but two thousand aspects to his soul and proceeds to play vast super-complex chess games with them, demonstrating to Harry that Life is a Game. Make of it what you will.

Finally he is back in the corridor and the next door he sees bears a sign:

HOW ONE KILLS FOR LOVE

This needs explaining. At several moments during their conversations, Hermine had explained to Harry that he must obey her in all things, up to and including the final one – she will command him to kill her. I wasn’t happy with this idea, since it seemed to me to take us back into the melodramatic, late-Romantic world of the Steppe Wolf, but here it is.

In fact before anything happens, Harry sees himself in a vast floor-to-ceiling mirror and sees a wolf. He reaches into his pocket and finds a knife. Ah. Mack the Knife, weapon of choice for the Weimar murderer. In a weird (it’s all beyond weird) twist, Harry ends meeting Mozart and has a lengthy conversation with him about art and music and time and eternity.

But Mozart laughs the cold, icy laughter of eternity, of those who have transcended time and Harry finds himself entering a room to find the naked bodies of Pablo and Hermine sleeping side by side as if after sex.

Beautiful, beautiful figures, lovely pictures, wonderful bodies. Beneath Hermine’s left breast was a fresh round mark, darkly bruised – a love bite of Pablo’s beautiful, gleaming teeth. There, where the mark was, I plunged in my knife to the hilt. The blood welled out over her white and delicate skin. I would have kissed away the blood if everything had happened a little differently. As it was, I did not. I only watched how the blood flowed and watched her eyes open for a little moment in pain and deep wonder. What makes her wonder? I thought. Then it occurred to me. that I had to shut her eyes. But they shut again of themselves. So all was done. She only turned a little to one side, and from her armpit to her breast I saw the play of a delicate shadow. It seemed that it wished to recall something, but what I could not remember. Then she lay still.

Pablo stir and is not greatly upset by what has happened. Maybe because it hasn’t happened. Mozart reappears and laughs at Harry’s stricken guilt. he says Harry must learn to laugh, too. All humour is gallows humour because we are all on the brink of the grave. Harry must learn the laughter of the gods of the immortals, a cold glacial laugh of eternity.

HARRY’S EXECUTION

The final scene is Harry’s trial, where he is convicted of the murder of Hermine but, in an unexpected twist, the court sentences him to live and laugh him out of the court.

At which point Mozart and the court disappear and Harry is talking to Pablo. Pablo, in his wise understated way, is a little disappointed with Harry for bringing the mud of reality and passion into his Magic Theatre but forgives him. None of it is real. The figure of Hermine appears as a toy, a little model. Could things be more trippy?

He took Hermine who at once shrank in his fingers to the dimensions of a toy figure and put her in the very same waistcoat pocket from which he had taken the cigarette. Its sweet and heavy smoke diffused a pleasant aroma. I felt hollow, exhausted, and ready to sleep for a whole year.

I understood it all. I understood Pablo. I understood Mozart, and somewhere behind me I heard his ghastly laughter. I knew that all the hundred thousand pieces of life’s game were in my pocket. A glimpse of its meaning had stirred my reason and I was determined to begin the game afresh. I would sample its tortures once more and shudder again at its senselessness. I would traverse not once more, but often, the hell of my inner being. One day I would be a better hand at the game. One day I would learn how to laugh. Pablo was waiting for me, and Mozart too.

Those are the book’s final words, the final words of the manuscript the Steppenwolf left with the nephew and which he promised to publish way back at the start of what is, physically, quite a short book, but one which feels like it’s taken us on a trip right around the universe of human possibilities.

Conclusion

I spent a lot of energy ridiculing the morbid self-pity of the lead character in the first half of the book, only to realise by the end that this was a narrative strategy, that Hesse took the maudlin self-pity he himself was prone too, especially after his second marriage collapsed in the 1920s, and blew it up out of all proportion… in order to make the character’s transformation all the more vivid and memorable.

So the real interest of the book is in the way the Steppenwolf is humanised, literally brought to Life and instructed in how to Live it and Enjoy it, by the beneficent guidance of Hermine, the hermaphrodite healer. The journey is packed with weird and wonderful scenes involving Goethe and Mozart, discussions of suicide and time and eternity and human nature and music and sex, it is a gallimaufrey of intensely felt ideas and insights.

And then the final forty pages take it to a different level altogether, a mad science fiction / horror / drug trip fantasy which in its combination of weirdness and philosophy does something hardly any other book I’ve ever read manages.

What an incredible book!

Credit

Der Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse was published in 1927. This translation by Basil Creighton was published in 1929. All references are to the 1973 Penguin paperback edition.


Related links

20th century German literature

  • The Tin Drum by Günter Grass (1959)

The Weimar Republic

German history

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