From JANET MASLIN
New Comic Novels From Dave Barry and Tim Dorsey
[More Carl Hiaasen below... DS]
Dave Barry has written a comic novel that features lost luggage, beaches, hapless tourists from Michigan, exotic animal life, drugs, wild mix-ups, laughable oldsters and the trademarked zaniness of Florida. Not at all coincidentally Tim Dorsey’s new comic novel features these same ingredients, although Mr. Dorsey’s hapless tourists come from Wisconsin.
What is it about journalism in Florida that helped Mr. Barry (The Miami Herald), Carl Hiaasen (also The Herald) and Mr. Dorsey (The Tampa Tribune) segue into writing such funny fiction? And what is it that makes their material so similar? Even if you know exactly which of them wrote “Hurricane Punch,” “Tricky Business” and “Tourist Season” (Mr. Dorsey, Mr. Barry and Mr. Hiaasen), it’s hard to miss the overlaps in their humor. It’s also hard to complain about too much of a good thing.
Mr. Hiaasen, who still writes an opinion column, understandably delivers the most barbed, issue-oriented humor. Mr. Dorsey has political opinions too, but his specialty is one main character: Serge A. Storms, the self-appointed enforcer whose dialogue has been the best part of a string of novels about him. Here’s what Serge has to say in the latest, “The Riptide Ultra-Glide,” to the victim he is preparing to abduct: “Where do you want to go? I can’t make any promises because of my zany schedule. Unless they sell souvenirs. My weakness, but it could be worse. Actually it will be. Suggestions?”
Mr. Barry’s “Insane City” is about a Florida destination wedding, which is to say that it’s got the template of a movie: maybe “Hangover 6.” Once they get to Florida, the groom, Seth Weinstein, and his friends get lost and drunk in no time. Everything goes predictably and spectacularly wrong, even though, as the wedding planner puts it, “basically, the bride is coordinating the Normandy invasion, and the groom is remembering to zip up his fly.”
Seth’s bride-to-be, Tina Clark, is a rich girl who has insisted that her $137,000 wedding dress be “sustainable.” That means hemp, which may not be exciting to Seth but certainly sets off a marijuana-sniffing dog at the airport. Tina’s father is a social-climbing billionaire who has invited an even bigger billionaire to the wedding, and here’s where Mr. Barry stages one of his dependably amusing examples of wires getting crossed. Seth’s parents, creaky and crabby, dressed in velour track suits even though Seth can’t imagine what athletic event they think they’re ready for, have brought medicinal marijuana brownies to the party. This doesn’t go anywhere surprising, but it’s still funny: drug-addled billionaires playing World of Warcraft and puzzling over whether sand — made of little rocks — is soft or hard.
Mr. Barry adds many, many secondary characters to this mix. There’s a romantic orangutan named Trevor and Tina’s father’s thugs, nicknamed Tinker Bells, “in recognition of the magical power they had to enable people to fly, at least for brief periods.” Some of these extras are formulaic. Some are sentimental. Some (any car chase) are flat. And a subplot about a pitiable Haitian refugee and her children is no laughing matter. But in this novel Mr. Barry must juggle more elaborate material than the brief, simple howlers he packs into his nonfiction essays. Although “Insane City” creaks occasionally, it mostly lives up to the impressive Dave Barry standard of escapist fun.
Mr. Dorsey’s winningly titled “Riptide Ultra-Glide” is more slight. It leads Serge and his buddy Coleman, who is such a world-class stoner that admiring kids ask him for his autograph, into the path of an OxyContin-trafficking ring. The trafficking isn’t funny, but the ancillary criminal scams are; when the pill-mill racket gets too dangerous, a lawyer recruits the dismally unsuccessful Dr. Arnold Lip to run a clinic that diagnoses lawsuit-worthy injuries.
“Where does it hurt?” Dr. Lip asks one patient. “It doesn’t,” she replies. Then he hits her leg with a triangular rubber hammer, she says “Ow,” and the situation concludes perfectly — the Florida way.
Most of Serge’s attention is focused on making the pilot for a reality show, fully aware that successful reality TV should not contain anything real. “I thought we were best buddies,” Coleman protests after Serge unexpectedly screams at him. “We are,” Serge says reassuringly. “But we have to pretend there’s all kind of brooding tension on the beach about to boil over any second.”
Considering that Mr. Dorsey has churned out 15 other novels in this vein and done his damnedest to make Serge a cult figure (Jimmy Buffett’s Parrot Heads are mentioned wishfully), “Riptide Ultra-Glide” is much fresher than might be expected. And if Mr. Dorsey can’t write other characters as deftly as he writes Serge, at least he tries. The visitors from Wisconsin are nice, nice, nice ex-schoolteachers who have been laid off in that state’s dispute over right-to-work legislation. Mr. Dorsey is outright angry about this. It becomes an occasion for brief speechifying, but the schoolteachers, Pat and Bar, are also comically clueless and mild. Neither of them has ever been able to read “Gravity’s Rainbow,” though not for lack of trying.
Serge’s ramblings are punctuated by the occasional killing. He approaches justice as a professed Robin Hood, even while grousing that Robin Hood should have hung onto his profits. (“To be a charismatic criminal, I’m supposed to work for nothing?”) And there is always a wisecrack to leaven the violence. After dumping the skeeviest OxyContin traffickers in the book into a pond divebombed by pelicans, Serge offers another motto-worthy pronouncement: “I didn’t invent nature. I just like to rearrange it.”
Carl Hiaasen on Human Weirdness
The satirist talks about the “curve of human weirdness” and the need for public outrage in the political arena
From T. A. Frail
As a Miami Herald columnist and the author of a dozen satirical novels, including the forthcoming Star Island, Carl Hiaasen has compiled a body of work populated by venal real estate developers, crooked politicians, environmental zealots, dead tourists, ambitious strippers and numbskull lowlifes. He says that as nonfiction has gotten stranger than fiction, it’s become harder for a satirist to stay ahead of “the curve of human weirdness. America is becoming more like South Florida every day, which is terrifying.” Hiaasen, 57, divides his time between Vero Beach and the Florida Keys. He spoke with senior editor T. A. Frail by phone.
Isn’t it possible we could just get off the weirdness curve and return to a more civilized state?
No, it’s not. When I go out and give speeches, the title of my speech is “The Case Against Intelligent Design.” And I base it strictly on what I’ve observed here in Florida, which is that the human race is actually de-evolving, that we are moving backward on the evolutionary scale. If you picked the headlines from the five largest newspapers in Florida every day, you could make a very solid case that the human race was slipping backward into the primal ooze. The species has not been elevated by much of what’s happened in the last 30 or 40 years. And obviously, it’s not just in Florida. The sort of thing that used to happen only in fiction can hardly compare to what’s in the news today. The reality of our current politics and the economic meltdown—that’s straight out of Tom Wolfe.
What fresh outrages do you fear are going to happen in the next 40 years?
For one thing, the level of political discourse will only get nastier. The Supreme Court’s decision to let corporations pour as much money as they want directly into political advertising—and do it anonymously—is toxic to the whole democratic process. From now on, it’s basically going to be all the free speech that money can buy.
Do you see an antidote?
Public outrage is the best antidote, because it often leads to change. But people can’t get outraged without rapid access to solid, useful information—what we used to call journalism. There’s so much garbage being disguised as fact and so many gasbags posing as sages; somebody has to cut through the crap. That’s the job of reporters, and their job will be more important than at any time in history. There’s been this great lamentation about the end of newspapers as we know them, the end of the era of the paper hitting your doorstep in the morning, but I don’t think the language or the craft of writing is dying. In the next 40 years, there’s going to be a larger demand than ever for people who can communicate with the written word, whatever format it takes. I don’t think there’s ever been a greater need for people to be able to write at a functional level, whether they’re tapping on their computer keyboard or on their iPhone.