By L.S. Klepp
September 10, 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. His picture of Florida revolves around tales of corruption, official incompetence, and criminal incompetence, played out by bizarre characters, many of whom own bizarre pets, including a dog with the face of Elizabeth Dole. 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.

A homeless guy called Puggy wanders into a bar called the Jolly Jackal, which, it soon becomes clear, isn’t just a bar. Its back room, full of mysterious boxes, gets all the attention of the Russians running the place. Also drifting into the bar are two bottomed-out hustlers, Snake and Eddie. After a dispute over beer money, the bruised Snake and Eddie exit, fuming, and Puggy finds a home in a tree on the grounds of a fancy house.

Elsewhere, Eliot Arnold, fired from a newspaper for flagrant integrity, has become a one-man ad agency entertaining the ”Big Fat Stupid Client From Hell,” who wants the ad for his Hammerhead Beer to focus on the important thing, large breasts. Then Eliot’s teenage son Matt asks to borrow the car because ”me and Andrew have to kill a girl.” He’s referring to a high school game called Killer, in which kids stalk each other with squirt guns. Matt’s designated victim, Jenny, lives in the house where Puggy is occupying a tree. Meanwhile, two New Jersey hitmen are also converging on the house, since Jenny’s stepfather has embezzled funds from a construction firm. Then Jenny’s dog, Roger — which, like most Barry dogs, has the ”intelligence of celery” — gets involved. Chaos ensues. Police ensue. And then it gets complicated.

The plot 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.