By L.S. Klepp
September 08, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

Dave Barry has always been fond of dangerous, mad-scientist experiments, and writing a novel is one. For a couple of decades he’s been the country’s most popular and prolific humorist, and traditionally, popular and prolific humorists plan to write novels and then don’t. Unless we’re talking about Mark Twain.

Well, Big Trouble is no ”Huckleberry Finn.” But it’s not only very funny, it’s sure-footed, sure-handed, even-handed, levelheaded, and other leading book-review adjectives, as well as hot, humid, and other leading weather-report adjectives (it’s set in Miami, where Barry has long lived).

Barry must have realized early on that you can’t write a goofy novel set in Miami without putting a lot of guns in it. He had little choice but to work in what he calls the ”Bunch of South Florida Wackos” genre, which, he concedes, has already been brought to near-perfection by his Miami Herald colleague Carl Hiaasen. But Barry’s Thug World theme park has fewer casualties and more pure slapstick than Hiaasen’s. He’s like a lowlife P.G. Wodehouse. The plot develops thriller symptoms, involving a stray nuclear device from the former Soviet republic of ”Grzkjistan,” and it thickens engagingly.

The story line allows Barry to strike the same broad comic notes as his column, taking on indecipherable teenage music, demented arguments on sports talk radio, and obtuse airport security personnel. But there’s more to it than a series of spoofs. The dialogue, especially the can-you-believe-this-place exchanges between the two homesick Jersey hitmen, is as droll as anything by Elmore Leonard.

There’s also some satirical sociology worthy of Tom Wolfe. It’s a buoyant book, even if much of the collapse-of-civilization humor is darker than Barry’s usual stuff. It conveys a touching faith that humanity is basically too dumb to blow itself up. It also proves that when it comes to dangerous novel-writing experiments, Barry is too smart to blow himself up.