Dave Barry

Tricky Business, Dave Barry

Putnam, 2002, 320 pages, C$35.99 hc, ISBN 0-399-14924-4

Regardless of what’s actually in Florida’s water supply, its place at the problem child of American states is, by now, quite secure. It’s always been, really, but its 2000-2005 temper tantrums, what with hanging chads, repeated hurricanes, Terry Schiavo and assorted weirdness, have made its weirdness unassailable, even from Texas. Is it any coincidence if Florida has also developed the funniest school of crime-fiction writers? This is unlikely to be a coincidence.

Dave Barry, of course, has no reputation to establish: The Pulitzer Prize on his mantelpiece is license enough to write whatever he wants. But beyond the award-winning humour column and the best-selling humour books, there is always time for something else. After Big Trouble, whose underrated movie adaptation you may have caught at one time or another, Dave Barry tries a second full-length crime novel with Tricky Business. The result is as pleasant as anything you may imagine from Dave Barry, but I can’t shake the stray thought that it may be better experienced… as a movie.

Not that it’s unworthy as a book-bound piece of fiction. As with Big Trouble, it slaps together an ensemble cast of unlikely Florida residents in a crime caper novel whose madcap nature emerges full-blown during the last half of the novel. In Tricky Business‘s case, all characters eventually converge toward a floating casino, the Extravaganza of the Seas, where a high-stakes robbery is about to take place. There can’t be that much money involved without organized crime, and there can’t be organized crime without police presence. Add to that a pair of seniors out for a night of fun and a mediocre rock band headlined by a guy still living with his mother and you’ve got the ingredients required for three hundred pages of fun.

And fun it is, or at the very least unpretentious beach reading. Tricky Business may not score all that high on the laugh-o-meter, but it’s hypnotically readable in less than an evening: The chuckles are constant throughout and the protagonists are drawn with some skill. The novel isn’t equally successful with all characters (the bad guys, most notably, are flat and not particularly well distinguished), but we don’t need them to go through the novel.

As far as the plot is concerned, this is a novel with a lot of movement, but little overarching plot: People move frantically to get on board, and then from one end of the ship to the other as the bullets start flying, but readers without the patience to piece together an intricate whodunit shouldn’t worry about keeping track of who’s doing what. Tricky Business takes place on a single day (you’re unlikely to spend any more time reading the book itself) and ends as sweetly as would befit a comic novel.

Not that anyone seriously reads Barry for the plot. In terms of jokes, Barry makes the most out of a flatulent character and an “Action News” station whose newscasters are a bigger danger to themselves than valuable news sources. The rest of the novel is a lot more sedate despite the sex and violence sprinkled throughout. Tricky Business is entirely safe to read on the bus: you’re unlikely to be raked with laughter from one page to another.

But don’t let that discourage you from picking it up if you’re in the mood for a little criminal silliness. While it’s certainly not better than the rest of the Florida school of comic crime-fiction (Carl Hiassen and Laurence Shames are generally more dependable), there’s still enough in here to keep anyone interested. Why not wait for the movie adaptation and buy the paperback?

Big Trouble, Dave Barry

Berkley, 1999, 317 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-18412-9

Americans can do really strange things, sometimes.

Yes, I’m referring to the activities depicted in Dave Barry’s Big Trouble. But I’m also referring to the controversy surrounding the theatrical release of the filmed adaptation of the novel. Barry Levinson had produced a low-key amusing version of Big Trouble, starring such comedians as Tim Allen, Denis Farina, Rene Russo and the incomparable Janeane Garofalo. Everything was ready for a September 21st, 2001 release. And then…

Well, you may suspect the rest of the story. Some nuts smashed a few planes in a few buildings and suddenly, America wasn’t prepared to deal with, say, a story which very briefly features two dim criminals unwittingly passing a nuclear bomb through airport customs. Here, let me brazenly reproduce a most inflammatory passage:

Puggy picked up the suitcase and the little party headed down the concourse toward the planes. Behind them, the stern woman turned her attention to the next passenger, a pension actuary who was already, without having to be asked, turning his computer on, knowing that this was the price a free society had to pay to combat terrorism. [P.249]

Ooh… I’m offended. Well, okay, I wasn’t, and it turns out to be such an insignificant part of the book that it’s hard to imagine anyone getting bothered about it. And yet, Touchstone Pictures yanked the film off its schedule and quietly released it six months later. You would have thought everyone would be mature enough to handle it by then. Alas, reviews were scathing, everyone worked up a sweat decrying that tiny thirty-second sequence and the film flopped. Here, let me reprint part of Steve Rhodes’ moronic one-star review:

Originally set to open the week after 9-11, it was pulled by Disney, who thought, correctly, that kids were probably not ready to laugh at terrorists with nuclear bombs who hijack airplanes. They should have pulled the movie from theatrical release entirely and gone direct to video without any fanfare or marketing. Burning the print might have been an even better idea.

As one of the few to have seen the film in theaters (and, apparently, one of the fewer to have enjoyed it), I couldn’t pass up the occasion to read Dave Barry’s original novel. The first surprise was to find out how reasonably faithful the film was to the novel. The second surprise was to find out that there wasn’t much more to the novel than the film let on.

That’s right. Normally -especially in comedies-, the filmed version hacks off a lot of the flavor of the original. Reading the book after usually expand and deepen the filmed story. Not so much here: Most of the sequences in the film are present in the novel, and the very few changes made to the ending are probably changes that Barry would have made if he had thought of it first. (Most unusually, these changes strengthen the book’s pre-existing theme of father/son approbation)

But don’t think that these surprises somehow translate into a disappointment: Big Trouble, whether on screen or on paper, is well worth your while. The novel is deliciously written in a compulsively readable fashion; don’t bother packing a bookmark, because you probably won’t need one. This warped portrait of Miami-area residents is sufficiently off the wall to keep you glued to the novel. After years of hilarious newspaper columns, Barry proves to be adept at longer comedy, though it should be said that this novel-length comedy is often pulled together from a string of related vignettes.

In any case, Big Trouble is Big Fun (but don’t quote me on this, given that I just stole that line off the opening blurb pages). Fans of madcap crime thrillers are sure to enjoy this, as is anyone looking for novel-length comedy. It’s up to the Barry standard.

Dave Barry in Cyberspace, Dave Barry

Crown, 1996, 214 pages, C$15.00 tpb, ISBN 0-517-59575-3

Okay reader, let’s step in the time machine!

Sit down in the chair, grab the controls, reset the dial to a primitive, dark and dangerous time. Be bold and go back to 1995. It’s wasn’t an easy time in that savage land known as America. The O.J. Simpson trial was on everyone’s minds. Bad dance music ruled the airwaves. TIME magazine boosted public interest in the Internet tenfold by pointing out that it contained plenty of porn. And, on August 24, a beast known by the name “Windows 95” was unleashed on an unsuspecting public.

Dave Barry was there, and a fat publishing contract allowed him to chronicle this turbulent period in Dave Barry in Cyberspace. With his sagacious talent for vulgarization, he gives us a brief history of computing, a primer on the inner workings of computer, a buyer’s guide, a quick trip to Comdex -the biggest computer trade show on Earth-, embarks upon the Internet -as primitive as it was way back then- and makes insightful predictions about the future of computing and how it will affect everyone’s lives in the long run.

Oh, who am I kidding? Dave Barry in Cyberspace is a book-long collection of humorist Dave Barry’s usual insanity, cleverly focused on computers to target the geek book-buying public. The result hasn’t aged very well, but still contains enough laughs to entertain.

Take, for instance, Barry’s history of computing. It goes from the stone age (who didn’t have numbers, which seriously screwed up their taxes) to the Greek (Pythagora discovered that tipping equals 15%), Stonehenge (which, seen from above, clearly forms an “Enter Password” dialog box), steam-powered computers (using fourteen-ton diskettes), early WW2 codebreaking computers (nothing funny here), primitive arcade game (“it was only a matter of time before the American public demanded -and got- Pac Man”), MS-DOS versus Mac (“serious computer geeks ignored Apple because they wanted a challenge”) and the then-current, wildly popular Win95. (“Microsoft’s getting orders from primitive tribes that don’t even have electricity.”) “How would our ancient ancestors react if we were to show them a modern computer?” asks Barry. “Probably they would beat it into submission with rocks. They were a lot smarter than we realize.”

And that’s just the first chapter —not including the introduction.

The wit and comic aptitude that propelled Barry in several hundred newspapers with his syndicated humor column is readily obvious here. Even if some Stylistic Quirks[TM] tend to repeat themselves, the overall effect is pretty funny.

But never forget that behind the silly jokes and elaborate punchlines lie several hard kernels of truth. The frustration of computer usage, the suspicion of Middle America at seeing their lives invaded by techno-speak, the sheer uselessness of most computing activities, the appeal of disembodied communication through safely anonymous channels —all of those are here, and chronicled in a fashion that will be of interest to far more than 21st century anthropologists.

Even better; Barry treats the subject with a kind of satiric reverence that allows his book to be funny both to the computerphobic and the super-guru. Like most great comics, Barry’s biggest asset is not only to know what he’s speaking of, but to look at it from a carefully-cultivated idiotic point of view that overlays a solid knowledge of what he’s satirizing.

Already, five long years after the release of the book, it has begun to lose its immediacy and to gain in historical value. Nostalgia is beginning to fill such terms as “Windows 3.1”. Dave Barry in Cyberspace is in serious danger of becoming a time capsule for latter times. And a darn funny one, at that.