In the decade since his last adult novel, Tricky Business, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Dave Barry has been busy. He discontinued his regular column for The Miami Herald, co-wrote the Peter And The Starcatchers series with Ridley Pearson—which went on to become a Tony Award-winning Broadway play and is now in production at Disney—and collaborated with Alan Zweibel on the zany, infuriating alternating-narrator novel Lunatics. His latest novel, Insane City, recalls the constantly shifting, short-chapter narrative style of his first novel, Big Trouble, but it cannot recapture his debut’s lighthearted intrigue.
Seth and his buddies are on their way to Miami for his bachelor party and wedding, but the trip gets out of hand almost immediately. His high-strung fiancée, Tina, is a stereotypically shrill rich girl, throwing her daddy’s money around as she plans an overly extravagant wedding. (Her planned next step: settling down with a suitably compliant husband, and becoming her household’s main breadwinner.) The bachelor party quickly enters blackout territory, and once Seth is separated from his friends, the weekend goes awry for good.
As usual, Barry adds to the confusion with a cavalcade of supporting characters, this time including a stripper Seth’s friends hired, her manager/boyfriend, two helpful bar patrons—one with a gigantic pet python—two reckless bodyguards, a pot-smoking slacker sister, an animal-preserve security guard, a beat cop, and the governor of Florida.
Amid all this, a Haitian woman and her two children attempt to illegally immigrate to the United States. At the beginning, the tonal shift from white boys getting wasted to a woman and her children huddling together as they drown is excruciating—but then Seth saves them during a chance encounter on the beach, and his savior relationship to this woman becomes the core misunderstanding that sets off Barry’s arsenal of hijinks. Seth tries to balance doing right by this woman with his fiancée’s increasingly shrewish demands—plus recovering an unfathomably expensive wedding ring.
The blend of sophomoric humor and overdone wedding jokes is dispiriting. It’s Tucker Max meets The Hangover with a healthy dash of the kind of “only in Florida” news stories the Sklar brothers comment on every week during their podcast. The book does have its funny moments. Barry is at his best when skewering Tina’s father Mike, a billionaire member of the Group of Eleven, an exclusive cadre of wealthy men who obsess over gaining access to the even more exclusive Group of Six. Mike’s poor attempts at wooing a fellow billionaire and rumored member of the Group of Six is the only strong example of satire in the novel, something that used to distinguish Barry as a columnist, but now is sorely lacking in his broad-humor fiction.
Compared to the latest Janet Evanovich or John Grisham offerings destined for airport bookshelves, Insane City is a decent comedic companion for a few hours on a flight to, say, Orlando. But somewhere in the past decade, Barry grew complacent, willing to take potshots at easy targets instead of digging for the specifics of how Miami has changed into a different kind of insane city from Atlantic City or Las Vegas.