Miami never had so much fun

BIG TROUBLE By Dave Barry G. P. Putnam's Sons 255 pp., $23.95

Dave Barry has been telling ridiculous stories for so long that it seems like a joke to call "Big Trouble" his first foray into fiction.

Following that age-old advice to "write what you know," the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist has produced a novel involving nuclear bombs, Russian gangsters, giant pythons, tree-dwelling street people, and teenagers. All standard elements of his life in Miami.

Writing in what he calls "The Bunch of South Florida Wackos genre," Barry opens his story with a "semiprofessional vagrant" named Puggy. Puggy has just broken his personal employment record by hanging on to a job at the Jolly Jackal Bar and Grill for three weeks. The job requires him to watch TV, drink beer, avoid being killed by two petty thieves, and, once in a while, haul heavy unmarked crates into a locked room.

In a slightly less shady part of Miami, Eliot Arnold, the sole employee of the Eliot Arnold Advertising Agency, is enduring a nightmare assignment from The Big Fat Client From Hell. Restraining a temper that once lost him a job as a newspaper reporter, Eliot puts up with anything that will help him pay his overdue rent and alimony payments.

The only good thing in poor Eliot's life is his teenage son, Matt, who wishes his father had a cooler car to borrow. Matt's current craze is a game called Killer, which involves sneaking up on classmates and shooting them with the entire contents of his SquirtMaster Model 9000.

Matt's current mark is the pretty daughter of a crooked contractor named Arthur Herk. Unfortunately, when Matt charges into this young woman's house to drench her, two gangsters are about to assassinate her father in the living room, while Puggy watches from his tree. As they say in TV Guide, "Zany high jinks ensue."

The big crisis involves corrupt Russian officers selling weapons to "foreign governments, terrorists, revolutionaries, paramilitary organizations, religious leaders, and random wackos in places all over the world, such as Idaho." (Of course, Monitor readers know better.) Throw in a poison toad and a robber blinded by dark pantyhose, and this is about as funny as a book can be.

Unfortunately, as Barry warns early on, "This is not a book for youngsters" because some of the mean characters, despite Barry's objections, "use Adult Language."

Fans will find all the Classic Barry Techniques (CBT):

*Obnoxious people are given Very Funny Generic Titles (VFGT) and acronyms.

*Stupid people have the intellectual depth of mayonnaise.

*Outrageous statements are written in caps SO THAT WE KNOW THEY'RE FUNNY!

*Unusually large things, like big hamburgers, are the size of Shetland ponies.

Of course, objecting to these well-worn formulas would be like asking Rodney Dangerfield to stop complaining that he never gets any respect.

Once he sets these characters in motion, the plot, swinging between ridiculous and really ridiculous, careens toward a wildly funny collision reminiscent of "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."

Amid all the screwball comedy, Barry drops in some wonderful satire of beer advertising, crooked politicians, advocacy journalism, and airport security.

Citizens watching an animal-control officer chase frisky goats down a busy highway as the world is about to end mutter, "Only in Miami." Indeed, only from Dave Barry.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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