Originally, the next three selections of Chris's Picks were going to all be part of the South Florida Crime novel genre, except for one thing, the second book I picked out of the genre sucked like a black hole, and I'm not going to review stuff that I can't say good things about. So, I was left with this brilliant observation that there are a bunch of guys writing funny books about crime in South Florida. And there are. Except I'm only going to cover one of them here. There is, however, some sort of critter angle that I can use to loosely link these selections, so here goes:
Big Trouble - by Dave Barry
When it comes to producing consistently funny material Dave Barry is (and I'm sure he'll be happy to find this out) Da Man. Always has been, always will be. And if he every gets to that Andy Rooney stage where he's not funny anymore, but doesn't know enough to stop trying -- well, I know a guy named Nacho who has three tears tattooed on his face and says that he'll help save Dave's dignity for a thousand dollars and a box of nines (and Dave, may God have mercy on his soul, won't feel a thing). But alas, I digress. Thing is, up until now, Dave has only worked in the non-fiction genre. This allowed those of us who wrote funny novels to be smug and say things like, "Yeah, Dave's funny and all, but he's doing newspaper work. He's not creating literature like us. Hey, is doody-head hyphenated?" Anyway, Dave's finally written a novel: Big Trouble.
Naturally, but only in secret, I wanted Big Trouble to suck. After all, Barry has won a Pulitzer Prize and had a TV show made about him and gets to speak at the National Press Club luncheon and hang out with Stephen King and Calvin Trillin and there's a finite amount of success in the world and he is obviously using up some of mine -- so I secretly wanted his novel to suck. It doesn't. (Actually, I don't believe that there's a finite amount of success in the world, so Dave isn't using mine. There is, however, a finite amount of talent in the world and Dave has used up all of Judith Krantz's, Jackie Collins', Arnold Schwarzenegger's and most of Keanu Reeve's except for the ability to say "Whoa" in a really convincing manner.)
Where was I? Oh yeah, Big Trouble is a lot of fun. Barry handles the characters, dialog, and even plot like he's been doing it for years, and manages to keep you snickering on and off through the whole book. The Plot? Well, let's see, a bunch of Florida wackos get involved in crime and corruption and arms smuggling, meanwhile, a touching love story develops between the wife of a rich criminal and a plucky anti-hero divorced guy, then a giant toad eats all of the dog's food. The toad is the critter angle. Sure, I could be more specific, but either you're going to trust me or you're not. If you like Barry's non-fiction and/or Carl Hiaasen's books, you'll like Big Trouble.
(If you're interested in other South Florida Crime Novels, check out the works of Laurence Shames, Paul Levine, James Hall, Les Standiford, Tim Dorsey, and of course, Carl Hiaasen -- or start with the literary Godfather of the genre, John D. MacDonald, who proved that all you need to come up with six dozen book titles is a large box of Crayolas.)
It's a hard-boiled detective novel with all the things a hard-boiled detective novel is supposed to have: a private dick who is down on his luck, a dead partner, a murder or two, a dangerous blonde, and vivid descriptions in tough-guy prose. Eric Garcia does a great job of pulling this formula off -- except for one thing, it's not formula, because our detective is a velociraptor in human clothing. Really. In fact, twelve percent of the world's "human" population is made up of dinosaur folk in human suits.
So if you have trouble making a leap of credulity, you're going to have a big problem with Anonymous Rex. But if you think that you can buy the premise that instead of dying out 60 million years ago, the dinosaurs evolved to a smaller size and developed very convincing human disguises, then this book is a blast. To be honest, it took me about fifty pages to give in. Fortunately, Garcia is a good enough writer to keep you interested until you buy the premise (or, I assume, send the book sailing across the room). About halfway through the book I found myself hoping that he would write a sequel.
While not exactly a laugh-fest, this book is fast paced and like any good hard-boiled novel, the ironic commentary of the narrator makes the ride fun (more so, because this narrator is a reptile who is addicted to basil -- herbs are the alcohol analog for our dino brethren). There's no need to outline the plot -- just let it be said that it involves mistaken identity.
You have to give Garcia his propers for having literary Cojones -- it would have been a lot safer for him to write a straight detective novel as his first novel, and he definitely has the skill to pull it off, but fortunately, he decided to go against convention and trust a twisted imagination, and as you know, I like that in a writer.
I sort of cringe when people describe a book as "so and so" meet's "so and so". It cheapens the book, makes it less original, puts the author in the role of a literary Dr. Frankenstein, stitching together parts of dead books to try to bring a new creature to life. That said, Night of the Avenging Blowfish is sort of a cross between the Marx Brothers' 'A Night at the Opera' and Albert Camus' 'The Stranger'.
But really, Blowfish is the story of Doyle Coldiron, a 41-year-old Secret Service agent who suffering from extreme loneliness and existential angst -- that's the bad part, the good part is that he rips off some of the best Marxist (Groucho not Carl) dialog that I've ever read. This is a seriously funny book that reads like a seriously funny play. By that I mean that none of the characters talk like real people, and they all seem to have a similar rhythm to their speech, but that rhythm is so sharp and so funny that you don't mind at all.
Here's an example of something that had me giggling at three in the morning. In this scene, the Secret Service baseball team, The Avenging Blowfish, are preparing for their first practice ever.
In the woods near a rutted dirt road, we found a discarded General Electric oven.
"Somebody help us carry this over to first base!" I yelled. From back on the playing field we heard people saying, "What?" and "Kiss my ass."
A little while later, Yamato yelled happily, "Look! Here's a sixty-foot cedar tree we can use for second base!"
"Will you guys quit screwing around?" someone yelled.
Next to a dried up stream, Horner spotted something
"Would it be okay if we used this dead raccoon for third base?" he asked. "No. Wait. I'm the third baseman. Never mind."
For several minutes we searched the woods, finding nothing that looked like bases or pitcher's plates.
"It makes you wonder how the prehistoric Indians played baseball," I said.
That should give you an idea of what to expect in Night of the Avenging Blowfish. While probably not the most profound passage, it really did crack me up at three in the morning. There's a lot of great observational humor as well, and not a bad love story, if you don't mind the point of view of the lonely guy. Really, check it out. I've ordered Welter's other books and I'll get back to you on them.
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