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Obit ambitions

Hiaasen skewers media moguls in Basket Case

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It's a scientific fact that if you add a calf to a pen where another calf has previously lived alone, the original calf will eat up to 50 percent more feed than it used to just because it has competition at the trough. Farmers use this trick to get beef cattle to gain weight.

The same instinct explains why healthy, larger newborn puppies push sick, puny puppies off a nipple when they get hungry.

Author Carl Hiaasen explains similar behavior in humans with what he calls the "greed gene." It explains why CEOs lay off workers to increase already healthy profit margins, why politicians accept bribes from city contractors and why developers bulldoze sensitive areas of Hiaasen's beloved Everglades.

The greed gene afflicts people everywhere -- in Hiaasen's Miami and, with the recent indictments of three Atlanta city officials, obviously here in Atlanta.

But Hiaasen rails against the greed gene anyway. In fact, he's carved out a damn good living by swiping at money-grubbing, scumbags with razor sharp words in the pages of the Miami Herald, where he's free to criticize anyone from Osama bin Laden to local officials bent on hoodwinking the public.

"You've got to be in the middle of things, thrashing around, landing a punch or two along the way," he says in a recent telephone interview to promote his book signing at Borders in Buckhead Jan. 8 at 7 p.m. "That's all you can do. I can't see myself mellowing into some thoughtful guy who writes 600 pages on Galapagos tortoises -- there's just too much that pisses me off."

In his nine fiction novels, Hiaasen gets to create his own bad guys and hack them in ways that would land him in jail in the real world. His villains are so twisted that they're almost farcical. There was the professional fisherman in Double Whammy who'd murder his competition just so he could win a fishing tournament. In Striptease, there was the sugar company lobbyist who would do anything to protect a demented and corrupt congressman to protect a federal tax subsidy.

In his latest thriller, Basket Case, published this month by Knopf, Hiaasen takes on a profit-driven media company and a pop singer who's too eager to capitalize on her rock star husband's mysterious death.

The hero, Jack Tagger, is a reporter in the throes of a genuine mid-life crisis. He used to be a top investigative reporter. But his newspaper was sold to a corporate media chain, Maggad-Feist (as in, maggot feast) and was promptly gutted to maximize profits. Tagger tells off the CEO, Race Maggad III, and gets demoted to obituary writer. Tagger hopes a rock star's death will finally land him a byline on page one, he just has to find out what really happened to the dead star, Jimmy Stoma, formerly of Jimmy and the Slut Puppies.

"Matlock" fans would appreciate the murder mystery aspect of Basket Case, and that's a bad thing. Fortunately, Hiaasen keeps the story speeding along with the force of a well-tuned muscle car thanks to the lacerating writing that's propelled most of his books to the best seller lists.

Hiaasen's motto for journalism, according to the introduction of Kick Ass, his first collection of Herald columns, is, "You just cover a lot of territory and you do it aggressively and you do it fairly and you don't play favorites and you don't take any prisoners. It's the old school of slash-and-burn metropolitan column writing. You just kick ass. That's what you do. And that's what they pay you to do."

With talk like that, you'd think this guy was Clint Eastwood or something. He's not. Hiaasen is mild-mannered and polite, usually sporting a Florida tan and smile to match.

In the same vein, his characters are by no means heroes in the traditional sense. Granted, by the time a reader comes to the end of the epilogue, the good guy beats the bad guy and gets the girl. Yet Tagger, like most of Hiaasen's heroes, bungles his way through the caper.

Yeah, you can probably predict the ending of just about any Hiaasen book, including Basket Case. But Hiaasen fans don't expect convoluted psychological thrillers -- far from it.

His stories are instead convolutedly zany, yet believable. The writing is tight. The characters, no matter how ludicrous they seem, come alive. Basket Case is great for the same reason; it's classic Hiaasen.

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