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Dave Barry's History of the Millennium (So Far)

Dave Barry

(Penguin)

With his penchant for blatant embellishment on the media record (when it serves a higher comedic purpose), Dave Barry’s account of the beginning of the 21st century demonstrates a skill for spin to be envied by every wannabe White House press secretary.


In order to introduce the new millennium properly, Barry starts out by summarizing the previous millennium into about 30 pages of observations such as the absolutely true fact that the bubonic plague was not covered by HMOs. The reader learns that before movable type was invented, printers had to take the paper to the letters, which were heavy and enormous, and so naturally they would take shortcuts, as in this version of the Bible: “‘In the beginning, etc.’”


Combining historical events with modern day pop culture conventions results in the assertion that Queen Mary of England earned her nickname, Bloody Mary, because she came up with the celery garnish for the eponymous mixed drink. A little further along, Barry predicts that when time travel is invented, high school students will travel back to kill the Scottish inventor of the logarithm.


Transitioning into his target time frame of the current millennium (so far), Barry sets the tone by observing:


Everywhere we look, we see rich people: millionaire athletes, billionaire dot-com Internet geeks, people on TV quiz shows becoming millionaires by answering questions so easy that they would not stump a reasonably alert stump. And although this makes us want these people to get hit by cement trucks, it also makes us realize that we have come a long way in the past thousand years.


Barry’s systematic handling of the years 2000-2007 belies his jovial tone. His method is very organized, moving through the months year by year, and giving a generally one to two page synopsis of current events from the pertinent month, plus notable deaths and random timely trivia. The single exception on the time-line is the year 2001. Barry skips over it almost completely, noting simply that he “took that year off, although I have no doubt that many stupid things happened”.


Fittingly enough, Barry starts out his summary of the ridiculous events of the new millennium with a mention of the confusion in Florida over ballots cast in the 2000 US presidential election. The difficulty Floridians are reputed to have when confronted with various types of voting media has been commented on at great length, but Barry’s take is from a new angle. He asserts that in November 2000, “The skies darken over Florida as hundreds of thousands of lawyers parachute into the state from bombers supplied by the Bush and Gore campaigns; most have filed lawsuits before they hit the ground.”


In the months leading up to the election, Barry observes that when faced with a plan for privatized social security proposed by Bush, “Polls show that this is a hot-button issue with the public, with 50 percent of likely voters wishing they had two other candidates to choose from and the other 50 percent agreeing.” Moving on to the Republican National Convention, Barry writes that in July of 2000:


Bush and Cheney are formally nominated at a convention in Philadelphia featuring a prominent display of minorities, some of whom—in a stark departure from GOP tradition—are not holding hors d’oeuvres trays. The convention is also marked by street demonstrations held by angry young people who hate capitalism and consumerism and are determined to fight these evils until it’s time to go back to college.


Amusing as it might be (from a healthy distance of eight years and with a presidential changing of the guard finally assured this November) to laugh about that fateful election, Barry has plenty of other material to choose from—even before he reaches the 2004 election, another doozy. For example, in August of 2002, “WorldCom executives admit to investigators that, in a clear deviation from accepted business accounting standards and practices, they heated their headquarters by burning money.” And following the November 2002 election season, “In a somber postelection speech, the president reaffirms his solemn commitment, no matter how long it takes, to learn to pronounce ‘nuclear.’”


US domestic news is certainly not Barry’s sole focus. Remember those early fears about avian flu? Barry comments that in May 2003, “Chinese health authorities, stung by accusations that they have been slow in reacting to the SARS virus, announce that they will execute anybody who gets sick.” Health care turns out to provide an abundance of comedic substance, like in October 2004, when:


On the health front, the big story is a nationwide shortage of flu vaccine, caused by the fact that apparently all the flu vaccine in the world is manufactured by some guy in Wales or someplace with a Bunsen burner. Congress, acting with unusual swiftness, calls on young, healthy Americans to forego getting flu shots this year so that more vaccine will be available for members of Congress.


Before it seems possible, the US heads into another presidential election. Barry wryly notes that:


John Kerry easily sweeps to a 53 state landslide victory in the exit polls and has pretty much picked out his new cabinet when word begins to leak out that the actual, physical voters have elected George W. Bush. Democrats struggle to understand how this could have happened, and, after undergoing a harsh and unsparing self-examination, conclude that Red State residents are morons. Some Democrats threaten to move to Canada; Republicans, in a gracious gesture of reconciliation, offer to help them pack.


International relations get another moment in the spotlight when Barry mentions that in December 2006 the five permanent members of the UN Security Council include the US, the UK, Russia, China, and Google. And one of the bright spots in technology occurs in 2007, when “Apple released the iPhone, which, as we understand it, enables users to fly, cure cancer, read minds, and travel through time.” Anyone who remembers the hype associated with that product might not think Barry is too far off.


Finally, the current state of the US economy is anticipated when Barry writes that in 2007, “On the economic front, the dollar continued to lose value against all major foreign currencies and most brands of bathroom tissue.” No one is safe from the mortgage crisis: “It got so bad that you couldn’t let your dog run loose, because it would come home with a mortgage.”


From domestic politics to the economy, worldwide health care issues to technological advances, Barry shows a total disregard for fact when it stands in the way of a funny observation. And yet there is a particular ring of truth to many of his assertions. Oftentimes, his interpretation of a top story serves simply to remind the reader that most of those headlines are, in fact, ridiculous in retrospect. This paperback edition includes “more Millennium,” a complete synopsis of 2007 on top of the material released in the 2007 hardcover version. And there’s no doubt that Barry could continue releasing a new version of this book every year if he were so inclined, because there is no end in sight to the strangeness of the times we live in.

Rating:

Lara co-hosts and produces the long-running tech and social media HD video podcast, commandN. She works in information management in Atlantic Canada after completing a professional Master's program in Library and Information Studies (MLIS) in 2010. Lara holds an MA in literature from Durham University (UK), and a BA from Boston College (US) in English and philosophy. She has been writing for PopMatters since early 2007. Her favorite authors include Haruki Murakami, Salman Rushdie, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Jasper Fforde. You can often find Lara on Twitter @larakillian.


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