By Kevin Nance
11:27 AM EST, January 25, 2013
As is widely stipulated, Dave Barry is a very funny guy. He was hysterical when he wrote his nationally syndicated column for the Miami Herald, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988, and is arguably even more droll in his madcap novels set in South Florida. The latest of these, “Insane City” — his first solo fiction in a decade after a best-selling series of Peter Pan tales co-written with Ridley Pearson — features the usual Barryesque panoply of ribald pranksters, addled taxi drivers, gangsters, strippers and pimps. There's also a big wedding coming up, said nuptials potentially interrupted by the arrival of a raft carrying a desperate Haitian refugee and her two children, an orangutan named Trevor and an 11-foot albino Burmese python named Blossom. Hilarity ensues, naturally, although with more than a wisp of serious content hiding in Barry's well-constructed thicket of comedy.
Printers Row Journal caught up with Barry by phone from his home in Coral Gables. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: Your books, including "Insane City," often have quite large snakes in them. Why is that?
A: Well, we have a lot of snakes in South Florida. Sometimes in my own back yard.
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Q: Big snakes?
A: The biggest snake I've ever seen on our property was actually on my desk, about six or seven years ago. I work in an office right off our pool, and somehow the snake got in. I reached over to get my Diet Coke, and there was this snake, definitely looking not happy about me being there. I was home alone, but I admit emitting a very loud, very non-manly noise. I ran out and got some barbecue tongs off the patio and grabbed the snake with them. Now, if you find yourself in that situation, the most important thing is to get the tongs near the snake's head. I had the snake near the tail, so it had a lot of room to sort of wave its head around toward me. Finally I dropped it into the pool, and it later got away. I want to say it was a 38-foot long snake, but really it was closer to, like, 2 feet.
Q: It's natural, anyway, that you have this snake thing in your books.
A: Well, if you go to where tourists hang out — South Beach, Lincoln Road, Bayside — there are these guys walking around with giant albino pythons. Some of them are doing it because they think you want to pose with their python for money. Some of them seem to feel that the snakes are some kind of attractive accessory. I've never seen that in any other city.
Q: You also have a sort of snake epidemic in the Everglades.
A: Yes, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is officially sponsoring a Python Challenge. They are basically asking the public to go out and kill as many of these snakes as they can, but to do it in an ethical and humane manner. We have these Burmese pythons here — the other day they caught one 17 feet long — and there are thousands of them, some people think tens of thousands, all over the Everglades.
Q: They are mostly former pets, I take it?
A: Right. One of the major hobbies in South Florida is keeping animals that no sane person would want to keep. One of those is snakes. They usually get them when they're small, and when they get too big, they let them go. But there are also people with monkeys, lions, tigers. And they all get away, eventually.
Q: Occasionally we hear about these titanic struggles between snakes and alligators.
A: Yes, there's a famous picture of python versus alligator. The snake tried to eat the alligator, and it was not a small alligator.
Q: It didn't go well, I think?
A: It didn't go well for either one. But generally the pythons are better than anything else at killing. Plus they're having all kinds of wild python sex out there in those swamps. Which is interesting, because I never thought of swamps as a particularly attractive honeymoon sort of place, like the Alps.
Q: Then again, you're not a python.
A: I am not a python. I freely admit that.
Q: The snake issue is just the tip of the iceberg in South Florida, which is getting a national reputation as a place where weird things are always happening. Why is that?
A: I don't think there's a unified theory of why, but there are a number of factors. Start with our climate. It's tropical, so whatever grows anywhere else, grows a lot more here. So there's just kind of a natural, musty, teeming-with-life feel to the place. Plus you have no kind of coherence whatsoever in terms of the population. People aren't from here; everybody's from somewhere else, and they liked that place better, so they're still driving according to the laws of whatever place that was. There's a vast diversity of cultures, so a lot of people don't speak the same language as the other people.
You also have a long-standing criminal culture here, going way back. People like Al Capone came here to escape the law, knowing that laws of all kinds, including zoning, are laxly enforced. So it's kind of this swarming stew of weirdness. Strange people show up here and do strange things. After a while, you just accept it. We had a guy who died a couple of months ago in a cockroach-eating contest sponsored by a pet store. The prize for eating the most cockroaches was a snake.
Q: A lot of the weirdness in "Insane City" has to do with a wedding. You've been married three times, so you know all about it.
A: Yes, but my weddings were nowhere near as elaborate as the one in the book. And of course they get smaller and smaller as you go along. I did attend a wedding at the Ritz-Carlton on Key Biscayne not too long ago, and there was a gazebo looking out over the Atlantic Ocean. I had this image of a rafter showing up during the wedding, because that does happen here. Every now and then, rafts just show up with people on them. So I thought, what would happen if a rafter showed up during an elaborate wedding? Most of the rafters are Cubans, but I changed it to Haitians because under the law now, if Cubans get ashore they can stay; but if Haitians show up, they can't. At least as of this moment. The law keeps changing. Anyway, it becomes an ethical dilemma for Seth, the groom, who encounters the rafters and has to decide what to do.
Q: Your readers are going to think, "He's making all this up. Miami can't be that weird."
A: The events I describe are unlikely to happen at one time to the same person. But, really, nothing that happens in the book is any weirder than things that happen all the time here, although to different people over a span of time.
Q: What's the difference between writing a newspaper column — as you still do from time to time — and writing a novel, other than the difference in scale?
A: With columns, I was always just thinking jokes. Joke joke joke. I didn't really care, because it was only going to be 800 words anyway, whether there was any kind of arc or deeper meaning. I just wanted to make people laugh for a few minutes. I never wanted to change the world.
Q: It's interesting you would say that, because when you won your Pulitzer for column writing, they cited you for using humor for serious purposes.
A: Well, they had to say something if they were going to give the Pulitzer to someone who mainly writes booger jokes.
Q: OK, but a novel is different.
A: Sure. With a novel, you have the reader with you a lot longer, and you owe him a lot more. Obviously you have to have a plot — I say "obviously," although I think a lot of fiction doesn't, and nothing seems to happen. But to me, there should be something that happens, and it should be at least vaguely plausible. And because the readers are going to be with these characters for a long time, you have to get to know them and like them and want to know what happens to them. And I'm not saying I don't have any points to make in this novel. I do, but not in the sense of, "Here's what you should think about immigration." I mean it in the sense of, here's a guy, Seth, who's never really given any thought to anything much in his life, and certainly not about big issues. But he gets involved, almost against his will, in a big issue. He has to decide what's the right thing to do, and it turns out that it's not the convenient thing to do.
Conversely, his fiancee, Tina, who does spend a lot of time thinking about big issues, has to confront whether her principles really mean anything. Or is it easy to have principles when they don't interfere with your glorious, wonderful personal life, specifically your wedding?
I'm sounding like a pompous author here, I know. Anyway, I wanted there to be a center to the book, and that became it.
Q: Weddings are very zeitgeisty right now, especially in the movies.
A: Sure. "Bridesmaids" and "The Hangover" and all that. Weddings are crazy. When you get right down to it, a wedding is a party, and not an important party, really. But for young people, it becomes the biggest thing in their lives. After it's over, they realize it wasn't that big a deal, but boy, leading up to it —
Q: There's the Bridezilla phenomenon.
A: I actually watched a few episodes of "Bridezillas" when I was writing this, just to remind myself of what happens to the women. They kind of go nuts, and they know it while it's happening. My daughter-in-law freaked out over their engagement party, which we had at our house, because it rained that night. She's this really smart, funny, together sort of woman, and she cried because it rained.
Q: Was it supposed to be an outdoor party?
A: Part of it, but we just fit everybody inside. When it was over, I took her aside and said, "See, it was just a party and it was great, even though it rained. Because you know what? It wasn't really about the weather." She agreed, and I said, "Just remember this on your wedding day, because it might rain then, too." And of course she didn't. But you know, men have no cause to criticize women about the way they are about weddings. Because men are like that about sports, but it never ends. At least women, after the wedding, say it wasn't that big a deal and they're never going to look at the DVD again. Men never stop being crazy about sports.
Q: Do you have certain unreasonable enthusiasms?
A: No. I am a superior form of human and I have absolutely no quirks or irrational impulses of any kind. The closest I get to that is when I watch my daughter play soccer. Even there, I can't begin to compare with my wife. Not that I would bring her up in this.
Q: I hope you're not one of those parents who coach from the sidelines.
A: No. No. I'm one of those people who tells my wife, "No coaching from the sidelines."
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose work appears in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Poets & Writers Magazine and elsewhere.
By Dave Barry, Putnam, 341 pages, $26.95
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