Dave Barry at his finest is one of the funniest writers around. His regular columns were an acquired taste but always crackled with energy and sometimes insights enough to win a Pulitzer Prize for commentary (1988). The longest form of them, his annual year-in-review entertains and illuminates like no other recap. Even longer form in the same genre, his eponymous nonfiction books which tackle a given subject (e.g., Dave Barry Slept Here, his history of the United States) can still a smile decades later. At his most rote, Barry is plausibly imitated by the “Dave Barry column generator”
Insane City, a novel about a wedding weekend in Miami that goes awry, is sadly closer to the rote. It stumbles repeatedly as fiction by incorporating far too much of what works from the columnist medium and incorporating it into fiction. The novelist is generally supposed to show, not tell, a columnist does the reverse. Jumping mediums is hard, but the disappointment is higher here because IC’s confidence in its material faltered: there is a funnier, deeper novel that could have been found in subsequent drafts of this book.
The book is largely about Seth, a man who failed to professionally launch. He is stuck doing social media for douche products into his thirties. But he is about to marry against the odds way above his station in Tina Clark, gorgeous accomplished attorney and daughter of a billionaire. Seth and Tina’s circles overlap in madcap comic fashion over three days recounted in 78 brisk chapters. The chapters, and intercuts between subplots keep the pace moving like his columns but exhaust this reader. The material is entertaining and even plausible enough if you close your eyes and try hard to think this just will be source material for a Dave Berry column.
Insane City was written after The Hangover movies, the generational apogee of bachelor party stories to which Insane City owes much. Two dimensional characters work better on screen than on paper, especially when so much revolves around motion. There are incisive gems sprinkled throughout, which come up for air among a lot of platitudes. Regarding the rich “their time was exponentially more valuable than the time of anyone they were about to encounter” sits uncomfortably on the same page (87) as the description that this rich character ran “a hedge fund worth more than most member nations of the EU.”
Barry largely tells us all this, as one might in a column, instead of showing it. The joke on the ultra-rich is their aspiration to join ever more exclusive clubs. Members of an exclusive Group of Eleven really want to be a part of the Group of Six and you can guess that Barry would revisit this trope the Group of Six really want to be part of a Group of …does the number smaller than six matter? Calling another billionaires’ enterprises “Transglobal” as a placeholder name is borderline lazy and could have used another pass. Far better is when the comedy is indeed shown – dialog of the drunken bachelor trying to get a hold of his friends on the phone.
The foibles or hypocrisy of the rich & famous are contrasted with the colorful, more innocent lives of the poor. This is tough material to handle with grace but it’s especially jarring to go from drunken highjinks to a Haitian refugee abandoned at sea fighting for her childrens’ lives. In a grand comic tradition there is a happy double wedding, and how Seth winds up is no surprise. The rest of the cast of characters wound up capably enough. By that time this reader was hoping for the other, better novel buried within.