It wouldn’t do to call Insane City “a typical Dave Barry novel.” What kind of thing is that to say about a book? The story begins with a bachelor dinner that goes off the rails, then brings in Russian mobsters, the fourth-place finisher in the Miss Hot Amateur Bod contest, a goodhearted escort and her “sales representative,” if you please, an albino Burmese python — or is that a Burmese albino python? — a half-dozen scheming businessmen, a Haitian refugee fleeing desperation with her two children, tough guys buying diapers, a car chase, a tropical moon, a boat chase and an orangutan named Trevor who winds up with the wedding ring.
But Insane City isn’t all humor — it weaves in darker threads, like the story of a Haitian refugee with two children, washed in on the ocean tides and trying to make a life in the States. “I attended a wedding on Key Biscayne at the Ritz Carlton,” Barry tells NPR’s Scott Simon, “and you sit facing the water, the ocean, and I dunno, I was just sitting there while the ceremony was about to begin, looking out at the ocean and thinking, ‘What would happen if, like, right now, a raft came up?’ Because it does happen — Key Biscayne is where they land a lot. That’s really what got me started.” And he made his refugee Haitian, Barry says, because Haitian refugees often get sent back, whereas Cubans are allowed to stay.
Miami, where the refugees and the party people and the tourists and the wedding guests and the gangsters (and the python) all mix, is “this stew of ingredients that never really come together right,” Barry says. “Then we have the fact that it’s basically a swamp. … Right now we have an infestation of Burmese pythons — gigantic snakes — and it just never ever calms down down here.”
“The first day of my life as a homeowner in South Florida,” he continues, “I walked down onto my lawn to get the newspaper, and on my lawn were crabs. Like, not just a few, but hundreds and hundreds of crabs. And they were not happy. Turns out it was crab mating season, and they were waving their pincers at me angrily, like I wanted to mate with their women. I didn’t want their women — their women are crabs! But they didn’t know that, or maybe they were bitter about that, I don’t know.”
But, Barry says, he loves his adopted hometown. “I moved here in 1986 from the United States, and I have come to really love it here. And it’s a great place to be a humor writer. Carl Hiaasen … his quote is, ‘You really don’t need an imagination to write fiction about South Florida, you just need a subscription to The Miami Herald.’ ” Barry, it should be noted, won a Pulitzer Prize for his Miami Herald commentary work in 1988.
Barry no longer writes a regular column for The Miami Herald, and he says traditional city columns like his, or those of Mike Royko in Chicago and Jimmy Breslin in New York, have been “tweeted out of existence. The time that people used to spend crafting one thoughtful 800-word piece, they’re more likely to spend now dashing off 53 one-liners, because that’s going to get them a much broader audience.” Covering the political conventions last summer, he says, he noticed that a lot of journalism has become tweeting — though whether that’s a bad thing or not, he won’t say.
“I remember the first campaign where I went to Iowa and New Hampshire, and I remember seeing, like, David Broder and all those guys at the bar, and you would hear them talking about what was going on,” he says, “and then a couple of days later, you would read their pieces. And now it all happens in seconds and minutes, and it happens while the speech is going on, it’s being analyzed. … It’s just different. Very, very different.”
Newspapers are under siege, too, Barry says. “The business model they operated under for decades and decades, where Sears bought a gigantic ad for a whole lot of money, because we were the only vehicle for that, and so we made tons and tons of money. And we thought, in journalism, that we got all that money because we had a bureau in London and a bureau in Rome, and we had bureaus all over the place, because we were The Miami Herald, and we had bureaus everywhere, and we were making all this money, and it must be because we were doing great journalism.” And then the Internet arrived, he continues, “and all of a sudden, we aren’t necessary for any advertiser the way we used to be … and it turns out that the public wasn’t demanding that we provide them with this level of journalism that we thought was so important to them.”
A big local newspaper is kind of like a big local sports team, Barry says — central to a city’s sense of community, even if it occasionally takes some flak. “I think the Herald spoke more for the community and reflected the community better than any other institution down here could, and now there is no institution to replace that … and I think that’s true of many, many cities now.”
So, is this an opportunity for novelists to step in? “Novelists have been trying to step in for hundreds of years,” Barry says, laughing. “I think the same forces that are sort of working against newspapers probably are also working to some extent against books. … It just feels like everything happens so fast now, and everybody goes on to the next subject so quickly now. Books seem a little archaic, except as entertainment, you know, as an escape from policy and that sort of thing.”