Dave Barry is immature. God forbid you should question that fact by pointing out that he’s happily married with children and has a successful career. Dave Barry will prove you wrong. Dave Barry will write essays mocking his wife. Dave Barry will expound on the many difficulties and inconveniences of parenthood. Dave Barry will happily throw his entire oeuvre under the tracks to get a laugh. Dave Barry will try way too hard.
While trying to prove that he hasn’t matured, Barry’s writing is targeted at a mature crowd—or rather people who hope that if they’re making fart jokes, it means they’re still somehow still young. The reality is that Barry’s sense of humor has always been a bit low-brow—something he is more than happy to admit every time he mentions how shocked he is that he managed to win a Pulitzer Prize. Still, sometimes it seems like he is deliberately modeling his writing after an episode of Married with Children.
The collection of essays, all written post Barry’s retirement from his column in the Miami Herald, starts off with a few essays waxing obnoxious on the difference between men and women. Let me say that I’m no raging feminist, and I’ve been known to laugh at a misogynistic joke or two. However, Barry’s jokes are barely original; he notes that the difference between men and women is that women like talking, thinking about relationships, worrying and buying scented candles. He then goes on to write two essays about fatherhood that are little bit crass, a little bit funny, and laden with poop jokes.
It’s not that his essays are really offensive, it’s just that he seems to be trying to offend in order to prove that he really won’t mature until he’s dead. When his lines are sharp, quick and well-timed, he is hilarious, but when he overwrites or overstates, the momentum is lost. Barry can be laugh-out-funny, witty and unique, but in failing to be succinct, he wears out his own material until it feels self-serving and overdone.
In an fictional essay mocking Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, Barry is not only funny but also piercingly smart. Alas, the essay is two or three pages too long, as is a parody of a spy drama script. As a columnist, Barry had freedom to ramble and could count on on his own stylistic devices to get laughs. He has prose patterns that are certainly amusing, but much of this book feels machinated, as though he is churning out jokes rather than thinking them through.
Perhaps that is because although these essays are all new, but not all of them are on fresh topics. Barry is on his second family, so some of the essays about his children don’t feel, well, fresh. A few years ago he wrote and published an essay called “My Son’s College Apartment”. (His son is now married.) It was funny, wise, lively and even charming. Comparatively speaking, an essay in this collection about attending his daughter’s dance recital feels forced, repetitive and at times almost cruel.
The essay about his son in this collection is a complaint about the frustrations of participating in the wedding (with a touch of sentimentalism thrown in at the end). Perhaps Barry is trying to adopt a style that is more hip, but in many cases, his digs and complaints are sharper than his wit.
He’s most successful when not trying to “be” anything but rather is just compelled to say something. His essay on the failures of the American Health care system verges on genius. Comparing these essays with each other and with his earlier work clarifies the trouble at the heart of this collection. Barry is a brilliant commentator — but not when it comes to talking about himself. His wisdom is in his powers of observation, not in his pedagogy.
Ultimately, I’ll Mature When I’m Dead is too self-reflective to be effective. Barry talking about being immature is simply too much — it lands him in a “methinks thou dost protest too much” situation. For years, Barry had enough to say about the world that neither his sense of humor nor his immaturity were ever in question. This book, positioned to prove that Barry is still vibrant after retirement has only shown that, it seems, his vision has narrowed.