Hoo boy, this is one really funny book. That might be all you need to know: if you’re looking for a really funny novel to bury yourself in for a snowy cold weekend, or a week at the beach (lucky you), then this should be on your short list of candidates. Go ahead and buy it, and enjoy yourself.
In case you need a little more coaxing, here’s this. Insane City is the third novel from Dave Barry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and author of such previously funny non-novels as Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort of History of the United States; I’ll Mature When I’m Dead: Dave Barry’s Amazing Tales of Adulthood; and Babies and Other Hazards of Sex: How to Make a Tiny Person in Only 9 Months, with Tools You Probably Have Around the Home. Barry has already proven himself more than adept at making people laugh, and his novels (Big Trouble, Tricky Business) have shown that he is also capable of mastering nuances of plot and character. The only question that remained, then, is: would this new book be any good?
The answer is, of course, yes. Maybe a qualified yes: this is not a novel that will change your life, that will suck you in with its layers of nuanced introspection or paragaphs of detailed description. It is not “lyrical”, whatever that means. (I have an MFA in creative writing and I still don’t know what “lyrical” means.) It is a book which prominently features an orangutan named Trevor, who steals a wedding ring and beats up three bouncers at a strip club. It’s that kind of story. So if this sounds entertaining to you…
Our hero, if he can be called that, is Seth Weinstein, a middle-class slacker and underachiever who finds himself in the unlikely position of fiancé to Tina Clark, the unbelievably beautiful daughter of the unspeakably rich Mike Clark. Seth doesn’t know why Tina even likes him, never mind loves him, never mind wants to marry him. It’s a question that preys on his mind a little bit as he flies to Miami with his friends (the “Groom Posse”) to embark on a bachelor party evening of adventure that quickly spirals out of control.
Before the night is over, Seth will have lost his luggage (which includes to items crucial to the wedding); met up with a strong-willed stripper and her thuggish boyfriend; and crossed paths with the sweet but barely-dressed Cynd and the boa-constrictor-wearing Duane. He’ll also rescue a trio of Haitian refugees, with predictably unpredictable consequences. Before the next night is over—the night of the wedding rehearsal dinner—pretty much everyone on both sides of the wedding will have gotten high out of their minds on hash. But this was by accident. No, really. And also Trevor the orangutan will have stolen the wedding ring, hitched a ride back to Miami and gotten shot before escaping in a police cruiser. To quote one of the author’s trademark lines: I am not making this up.
As expected, Barry’s wit is sharp and his observations keen. He is the master of delivering barbed one-liners that manage to convey more than just a laugh. “Seth entered the Delano Hotel and walked through its desperately hip lobby, consisting of random weird spaces sparsely decorated with unattractive yet at the same time uncomfortable furniture.’ Elsewhere, “Seth now knew what a floral installation artist was: It was a florist, only way more expensive.”
Barry is also capable of finding the occasional tender or serious moment mixed in with the laughs. This is most apparent at the very end—no spoilers here—but is also conveyed throughout the story of Laurette and her children, the Haitian refugees fished out of the water by Seth. Some might complain that Barry takes advantage of this storyline, using a genuinely troubling issue to lend a veneer of seriousness to an otherwise lightweight story, but that complaint isn’t valid. Laurette and her situation complicate the proceedings further in comedic as well as serious ways, and Barry handles both threads with skill.
At the end of the day, however, that serious storyline is definitely subservient to the comic one—the story that sees Seth and his motley companions, including the orangutan (long story) fleeing the authorites aboard a pirate ship (quite long, actually).
Another, perhaps more legitimte criticism is that the story relies on the increasingly-worn trope of the doofus guy chasing the hot girl. This has been done to death in the movies (everything from The 40-Year-Old Virgin to Sideways to Knocked Up) and it’s not the most original starting point for the story here. Fortunately, Barry knows how to tell a joke and make even a well-worn situation funny, so he manages to overcome this self-imposed obstacle.
So then: readers searching for an entertaining read to fall into for a few hours should certainly givbe Insane City a look. Those preferring denser fare, or perhaps fewer jokes about porn, should probably look elsewhere. Be warned, though: you’ll be passing up on an awful lot of fun if you do.