Much More Than Pratfalls, Yuks, and Adult Language: Dave Barry’s Big Trouble

BigTroubleCoverOkay, I’ll admit it. Reading Dave Barry makes me feel inadequate.

When I finish one of his books, I never want to try and write a joke again. Nothing I do or say will ever be funny. The next time I use a colorful metaphor, in the back of my mind, I’ll judge it against the way Dave does it. And I’ll come up short. Every time.

But I’ll get over it. Because I love reading Dave Barry.

So now that that’s out of the way.

Not surprisingly, Big Trouble was an utter pleasure to read. I saw the movie a few years ago and enjoyed it, so I already knew the story, but as I usually do with book-to-movie crossovers, I tried to approach the book with an entirely open mind. Had I been able to find the book on a store shelf at some point over the last few years, I probably would have read it much earlier, but it’s less common than Barry’s well-known non-fiction and one of his other novels, Tricky Business. Recently, though, I came across Big Trouble on my need-to-read list and immediately ordered it online.

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Before I move too far ahead, I’ll also say that the movie is worth the time as well. It didn’t do well in theaters after being delayed because of the attacks on September 11, 2001; there were scenes in the movie (also in the book) involving criminals sneaking nasty destructive devices past negligent airport security personnel. So by the time the movie released, most of the marketing bucks were spent and the film had been largely forgotten. It’s a fine movie, though, starring some of my favorite funny people–Tim Allen, Patrick Warburton, Zooey Deschanel, Stanley Tucci, Andy Richter, Jason Lee, Johnny Knoxville–and it does the story a good turn.

So, back to Big Trouble the book. Well, just to tease with no spoilers: There’s Puggy, the drifter who lives in a tree; Henry and Leonard, the two New Jersey hitmen sent to knock off Arthur, the crooked developer who’s stolen money from his even crookeder company; Eliot, a former newspaperman, whose son, Matt, has a crush on a classmate, Jenny, whose mother, Anna, is married to Arthur, whose backyard tree serves as a home for Puggy, who falls in love with Arthur’s housekeeper Nina. Add to this Snake and Eddie, two lowlifes looking to make a score, a pair of Russian arms dealers, two uniformed cops, one of whom has the hots for the other, and two FBI agents looking for the arms dealers, and you’ve got about half an idea of the players in Big Trouble.

Oh, and there are goats. And a python. And a dog named Roger.

A scene from Big Trouble the movie. And yes, it’s worth the time as well.

The book is a bit rough with regard to language, not necessarily by my standards, but it should still be noted. In fact, Barry himself draws attention to this in his “Acknowledgments and Warning”:

I’ll start this with a warning: This is not a book for youngsters. I point this out because I know, from reading my mail, that a lot of youngsters read my humor books and newspaper columns, and I’m thrilled that they do. But this book is not for them, because some of the characters use Adult Language. I did not necessarily want the characters to use this type of language; some of them just went ahead and did. That’s how characters are.

There’s much more to Big Trouble than pratfalls and yuks, and yes, even Adult Language, though. It’s full of what makes Barry so good at comedy: the interesting ways his characters observe, interpret, and respond to the world.

Here’s Puggy, the tree-dwelling drifter, thinking about his new life in Miami:

Puggy liked everything about Miami. He liked that it was warm. He liked that most of the police seemed tolerant of people like him–people who, merely by existing, tended to violate laws that solid citizens never even thought about, like how long you were allowed to sit in a certain place without buying something. The attitude of most of the police down here seemed to be, hey, you can sit all you want; we’re just glad you’re not shooting.

Sometimes the characters’ responses are sensible, sometimes rash, and at others insane, but they’re always compelling, which is also one of the many things that makes good literature. In Dave Barry’s case , the reader is usually compelled to laugh.

With a plot like the one Barry has going here, where random characters cross paths at moments precisely calculated to create optimal levels of chaos and laughs, there’s bound to be a hint of contrivance. If you look really hard, you can see that here, but you have to really, really look. Every once in a while, a character will make an odd choice that seems somewhat out of profile, and before long you may realize it was in service of the plot. But even when you catch Barry at this narrative sleight of hand, you’re probably going to give him a pass, first because comedy has a long tradition of elaborate plot machinations, and second because he’s so damned good at it.

Also, with Dave Barry, you can usually bank on the fact that the payoff is going to be far more than worth the setup.


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