I think Dave Barry uses Miami as the setting for so much of his writing because he feels it’s easier for people to suspend their disbelief if something happens there. As if nowhere else in the world is there a big city filled with drug kingpins, big money, illegal immigrants, corrupt politicians, the elderly, and back-country hicks who really know their way around a python. (Apparently Mr. Barry has never heard of a little place called “The Twin Cities.” And by Twin Cities, I mean of course, Sodom and Gomorrah.)
Insane City is Barry's first return to adult fiction in more than a decade. The novel opens with soon-to-be-married Seth and his Groom Posse boarding a flight for Miami. The action starts almost immediately as Seth loses his groomsmen and luggage at a bar. The scantily clad Cyndi and her friend Duane, the owner of an albino python, offer to help retrieve it. That’s where things get complicated.
Seth's luggage finds its way to Trevor, an aggressive orangutan looking for love. His groomsmen loose their clothes while Seth rescues a family of Haitian immigrants and hides them in his hotel room with the stripper he told his friends not to get him. Tina, the blushing bridezilla-to-be must have her way in all things at all costs, which is easy because her dad is one of the richest people on the planet. Most of the wedding party eat pot brownies, smuggled into Miami by Seth's clueless parents. And that’s when things get even more complicated. Half of the characters try to do what’s right while the other half try to get what they want.
A good farce is structured like a house of cards. Only someone with a delicate touch can build a really good one, which is strange because its humor and satire seem so heavy-handed. But joke bombardment must be in lock step with plot development, which means tracking lots of threads. Barry deftly navigates Seth & Co. through an increasingly complicated satirical web of big money in politics, immigration, and the modern wedding industry. The essence of farce is summed up best by the conversation two of the "Insane City" characters have while they’re high: “It’s fun, but nothing really important comes out of it.” Barry is a genius at making this kind of diversion worth our while.
In "Insane City" the classic “doors problem” of farce is handled with masterful precision (there’s 78 chapters in 341 pages) though in a more metaphorical than literal sense. Barry never once loses his sense of timing or rhythm.
The cuts between the Haitian mother’s deeply emotional POV and other character’s shallower thinking can be jarring, but they work within the larger scheme of the novel. The jumps to Trevor, the orangutan narrator, are consistently hilarious.
However, as Seth’s relationship with another character (who shall remain nameless so nothing is spoiled) develops it becomes clear where all this action is heading. As soon as they share a significant moment, we see the end of the novel. That’s not to say the ride wasn’t enjoyable, just that it lost the element of surprise pretty early. A lot of the big emotional revelations lost their hitting power after I saw them coming. But, then again, I came here to laugh, not to have my heartstrings played.
Barry remains a master of humor. He’s assembled a supporting cast of odd characters that could be found nowhere else but Miami. I especially loved the shout-out to his Peter Pan prequels with the two bodyguards nicknamed “The Tinkerbells” for their ability to make their enemies fly…. for a moment or two from the tops of buildings.
“Insane City” is wildly entertaining book. I ripped through it, and by the end I was exhausted. It might not be the next great American novel, but it made me laugh, which I'm pretty sure it was supposed to do.
Ben Frederick is a Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor