Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Back in 1987, I picked up a copy of Dave Barrys Bad Habits, a collection of his newspaper columns. As we drove through the countryside, my girlfriend (now wife) and I took turns reading Barrys columns aloud, occasionally having to pull to the side of the road because we were laughing so hard. Since then, Barry has won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary (1988), published several more books, had a television series based on his writings, played for the Rock Bottom Remainders, and finally, in 1999, published his first novel, Big Trouble.
Big Trouble is a light-weight comedy of errors which allows Dave Barry to skewer a wide variety of fairly obvious targets, many of which are specific to the Miami area where he lives. While there is humor in the novel, it is of a more subdued variety which rarely provokes a laugh-out-loud response. The humor actually seems overshadowed at times by Barrys constant lamenting of the number of guns which are readily available in Miami (and, by extension, the rest of the US).
The plot is very basic, with elements piled on it. Two hit men have been hired to kill embezzler Arthur Herk. Their attempt is frustrated by Matt Arnold, a teenager playing a game in which he has to shoot Herks daughter, Jennifer, with a water pistol. Barry piles unlikely situations and responses onto this basic plot, eventually resulting in hostage situations, skyjackings and nuclear weapons.
Barry demonstrates himself to be surprisingly adroit at creating memorable characters, ranging from a sarcastic FBI agent to a young boy whose adventure games take a serious twist. Unfortunately, the introduction of too many characters is this relatively short book means that Barry must dispose of many of his characters as his plot moves forward. Characters who begin as stars are quickly shuffled into support roles as the plot moves past their necessary presence. Although Barry includes an epilogue which explains what happened to most of the characters, it has a very tacked-on feel to it.
To his credit, Barry managed to avoid including such standbys of his column as exploding animals or booger jokes from Big Trouble. The humor in Big Trouble tends to be humor based on the strange situations and odd responses the characters have rather than actual jokes. Barrys humor, ironically, falls most flat when he attempts social satire, whether savaging rock lyrics or disparaging teen fashion styles.
Big Trouble is a short book (only 255 pages). While Barry is able to keep the story interesting and diverting for this length, it is probably about as long as the book should be. Any longer and it would have ceased to be a diversion. As it is, the novel can be read and enjoyed over a short stretch of time and then put aside with fond, although innocuous, memories.
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