In Dave Barry's 'Insane City,' a few tasty bits in a buffet of leftovers

The Washington Post, January 31, 2013

Yeah, sure, politics and race and religion make people crazy. But when you get right down to it, what's a more divisive force than comedy? Case in point: "The Hangover," a cleverly structured farce that convulsed roughly half the Earth's population with its antics and hijinks and tasering of Zach Galifianakis and left a small minority (me included) frowning at the screen, waiting for something funny to happen. If you fell in the former camp and can't quite wait for "The Hangover, Part III" to come out in May, then by all means avail yourself of Dave Barry's new novel, "Insane City," which replicates the comic franchise's set-up, step by lurching step.

A bunch of dudes prepares to treat a hapless groom to a raunchy bachelor party? Check. Said party does not go as planned? Check. Matters are made worse by a stripper and a baby and an exotic animal and bad guys with guns, and somebody steals a police cruiser, and right up until the very end, the wedding is in danger of being called off? Check, check and check.

Indeed, unless you count Barry's bizarre decision to inhabit the consciousness of a Haitian refugee mother (that's more Dave Eggers than Dave Barry) or the fact that the groom's Jewish parents act like Jewish great-grandparents, the most surprising thing about "Insane City" is how unsurprising it is, even at its most baroque. From the moment the Groom Posse loses its way, we can see pretty much every plot complication coming miles off. We know the ring will be lost, the clothes will be ruined, alliances will be tested. As surely as night follows day, that box of pot brownies will be ingested by the wrong people, and if a suitcase is left near an orangutan's cage, the orangutan will have his way with it. As for that Gorgon-bride who broadcasts her bitchiness from the very first scene, I'm guessing that her nice-guy fiance, in the course of flailing around the greater Miami area, will find a worthier object for his affections. Hiding in plain sight, even.

It's quite a buffet of leftovers the author has served us, but for all that, he's Dave Barry, America's great middle-register humorist. For many years, as his admirers know, he penned a weekly column that negotiated grotesquerie, politics and gender wars without resorting either to rancor or blandness. Then as now, his true devilishness was in the details. "Insane City," for instance, anatomizes the agony of standing behind an elderly coupon queen in a drugstore checkout line. It introduces us to a strip club named Chuckletrousers and a Beltway PR firm "tweet whore" who posts dispatches on feminine hygiene products: "WomanFresh. Because you never know when somebody unexpected will drop in." It offers conclusive proof that, while a seedy tourist sideshow may change its name from Snake Village to Reptile City to Monkey Adventure to Primate Encounter, it will remain, years later, "a roadside shack exhibiting critters in crates."

And with spring break approaching, "Insane City" performs the valuable public service of showing what happens when four intoxicated Ohio State football players decide to twist an albino python into the shape of O-H-I-O. Hint: They get as far as H.

Capper: The snake's owner does nothing to save them because he's a University of Miami fan.

Most pleasingly, "Insane City" introduces us to a subsidiary character named Wendell Corliss, a gazillionaire who, under the influence of aforementioned pot brownies, remembers seeing another gazillionaire doze over dinner. "So I'm watching him," says Wendell, "and I see this fly walking around on his head. Herb had a huge head, totally bald, and this fly is just strolling around on it, very casual, for a fly. And then, while I'm watching, the fly walks into his ear. All the way in. And I didn't see it come back out. Can you imagine? . . . Being that fly and walking into Herb Wentworth's ear. I mean, to the fly, that earhole was the size of the Lincoln Tunnel. But the fly just walked in there as if it knew exactly what it was doing. Think about it. Think about the confidence."

In the course of his weed reverie, Wendell will buy two restaurants because they refuse to deliver, will become fast friends with the groom's slacker best man (another lovely creation, begging to be played by Zach Galifianakis) and will question the single-mindedness that made him so rich and feared. Amid the relentless commotion that marks the rest of "Insane City," Wendell's quiet, character-driven arc of discovery suggests the book that could have been.