Dave Barry has always been an absolute powerhouse in my life as a reader and writer. By the time I turned nineteen or twenty, I had read all of his books, owned most of them, met Barry several times, and was grateful for the handful of times I could share personal correspondence with him. As I gained more and more of a postsecondary education in literature and as a writer, it became apparent how he could straddle the thin black line of humor, style, populism, and his audience’s expectations to create an incomparable career that I still follow to this day. Heck, my high school yearbook said I would be a journalist, and despite going to school at first for Computer Science, I had to make my mark in our newspaper as a humor columnist right off the bat.
I am a different kind of writer now, but his influence is no less important. I owe a lot to Dave Barry.
After a career that branched off into novelist after his retirement, I never stopped loving what he wrote, as silly, sophomoric, and safe it was at times. Swamp Story is exactly what I expected to experience when I got an ARC courtesy of Simon and Schuster leading up to the new release of the book this week. Ever since Big Trouble, Barry has come to be the foremost expert in crafting crime novels that offer a huge-cast, zany antics, screwball coincidences, high stakes, and perhaps the most remarkable aspect of all, a somehow deeply moving story with people we actually care about because they are so much like people we actually know.
Swamp Story is about a few things at once, of course. One story thread is about some “Florida Man” boneheaded brothers with a failing business who come up with an idea to create a new viral sensation. Barry tackles the concept of social media and viral sensations in our modern world. Another features a couple more boneheads who can’t rub two nickels together and fail at every venture – especially their new kids’ birthday party entertainment business – but one of whom is able to be swayed by the potential to not only pay off his Dora The Explorer costume but be able to raise money and possibly regain the love and trust of his estranged teenage daughter. There is a young mother trying desperately to escape from a neglectful relationship with her daughter, but who becomes trapped, and her only escape is the answer to all of her prayers – a long lost Everglades fortune of unclear origin. Then, there is the one man that cares for her and helps. There’s much more than that, of course, but the core cast of characters offers plenty of intrigue and adventure in the deep heart of our dearest headline-inducing state.
I loved this book. Barry has an incredible knack for fictional narrative – no surprise considering his long tenure as the Miami Herald’s funniest amateur psychologist. His now extensive experience in fiction just solidifies his legacy as one of the least serious and funniest storytellers. If there is one thing that I think he does well, and differently in this book, is his sincere portrayal of his female protagonist Jesse. While much of his work reflects a goofy American machismo (always tongue in cheek), this novel shows an understanding embodiment of American women that forgives any misunderstanding I ever had about his respect for women. Don’t expose him as a feminist deep down – his wife and daughter already know him as a sweet, understanding, chivalrous guy, and that’s enough of that for his career. Everything else is just writing, documenting life in the humid alligator bogs that put everyone just over the edge of sanity.