Saturday, February 9, 2013


    So the rundown is as follows: Lunatics is a funny if profane and sometimes excessively juvenile book. The dialogue and characters shine through, and when the book hits its comic rhythm, the beats come faster than anything I've read. It's hilarious in the right places, and even when the notes don't hit, it keeps up the pace fast enough that it doesn't really matter that the joke flopped. The book's already on to the next one. While Dave Barry has always been weaker in his fiction as opposed to his nonfiction, Alan Zweibel manages to shore him up just enough to carry the day. 

                The drawbacks are that the book occasionally moves too fast, which left me mulling over previous details before I had time to process the next ones, and a lack of enough sympathetic characters to go around. Where both characters attempt being unsympathetic, only one of them actually pulls it off, leaving one feeling a little lopsided, since Philip Horkman (one of the two point-of-view protagonists) is actually kind of a nice person having a successive series of bad days, while Jeffrey Peckerman (the other protagonist) openly uses racist and offensive language the way I use commas and footnotes. Still, in the end, the alternating points of view provide an interesting look at the story of two men continually in over their head. More, as always, below.

"The Other Guy is Worse"
- Political bumper sticker

               Ever since a friend of mine showed me one of his articles in 2002, I've been a fan of Dave Barry. I've read his articles on how restaurants shouldn't be allowed to throw crap on the walls and name themselves after jovial Irish bartenders (when they're actually four absentee proctologists in search of a tax shelter), his tour of Japan's "plastic food district", and his infamous series of articles on the Bad Song Survey. He's actually been an influence of mine with his tacit philosophy of "go out, do stuff, then write about it" serving as a nice guide for the various strange pieces and stories I do. And when I discovered his fiction through the B-comedy film Big Trouble (It has an A cast, but come on. It's a B-movie. And arguably one of the few genuinely-funny things Tim Allen has ever been involved in), adapted from his book of the same name. I also read his somewhat weaker book Tricky Business. While neither of them made me breathless with laughter the same way his columns did, they were well-written books, and thoroughly enjoyable. 

              But Barry retired a few years after I found out about him, leaving something of a drought. He moved on to writing children's books with mystery author Ridley Pearson, and while I had always meant to pick them up, I just got too busy. So when I heard he'd done a book with Alan  Zweibel, an Emmy-winning comedy writer and originator of one of my favorite quotes about working with Jim Henson, I had to get my hands on it. Thankfully, the public library around here is much faster on the draw since when I first moved here, and there was a copy right on the shelf next to his other fiction, waiting for me. Once I got it home, I cracked it open and read through the first three chapters. And it was great. Well, sort of. Hang on...

             Lunatics tells the story of Philip Horkman and Jeffrey Peckerman, two fathers living in a suburban town in New Jersey. Horkman has a loving family and a very quiet existence operating his pet shop. As a hobby, he referees the under-12 soccer league in town. Peckerman is a loud and boisterous man who has a career in forensic plumbing (yes, it's actually a thing), and an antagonistic relationship with his wife. His daughter plays in Horkman's league. When Horkman calls Peckerman's daughter offsides and costs her the tying goal of the under-12 qualifying game, Peckerman explodes in a rage. The two manage to get away from the game and each other unscathed, each thinking the other is an "asshole" and a "lunatic".

And then things get weird.

            Due to an unfortunate misdirection and a constantly-escalating situation, Horkman and Peckerman are pitted against each other several times, and finally forced to go on the run with each other to evade the police, bears, terrorists (one dressed as Chuck E. Cheese), a black ops Coast Guard unit, Cuban revolutionaries, a pair of avaricious strip-mall lawyers, naturist nuns, and an increasing rogues' gallery of the criminally insane. They have to work together to clear their names and stay alive against mounting odds, and as their bad luck and Peckerman's rage issues hit them again and again, it looks less and less certain that the two of them will get out of the situation at all, let alone with their reputations intact. 

            I suppose the best strength of the book is characters. Each one has their own distinct voice, and this serves the narrative quite well. Horkman is timid and polite, with a very subdued tone. At first he never swears, instead choosing to find ways around it. And while it is perfectly possible he's an unreliable narrator and is simply telling us how rational he is despite committing several acts that are more than likely crazy, it's hard to believe that Philip Horkman is anything but a rational, quiet guy dragged into a life he doesn't want. Peckerman, on the other hand, is a loud, offensive man whose every move is an affront to someone. He openly talks about bodily waste, calls everyone a douchebag, and makes comments that show him as a massive, massive tool. Peckerman, despite occasional heroic actions, is kind of made out to be as much of an antagonist as the people chasing the duo on their insane journey. But both have a distinct voice. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the two authors paired off-- one writing the Horkman sections, and the other writing the Peckerman sections. Even the side-characters are colorful and their voices are equally as distinct. Also, the cast just makes things interesting. You want to know who these people are and what their motives are, and the best sign of good characterization is when you actually want to know who you're dealing with, even the secondary ones.

           The second big strength of the book is the pace. After our characters are introduced, things quickly pitch forward and don't let up until the protagonists' whirlwind tour of volatile locales finally comes to an end. Every moment of quiet is another moment just before the book lurches towards its next explosive confrontation, be it pirates, a hijacking, or the angry Chinese government. Because the pace never lets up, it never feels like the book drags. Of course, you're always waiting for the next fresh hell, but that's part of the fun. Asking "How could this situation possibly get worse, and how will they get out of it?" is a huge part of the book, and seems to be part of the writing process for the book. But I was unable to put the book down, so it worked in its own bizarre way. And I have to say, I didn't see any of the twists coming. I wasn't even sure how I got from the beginning to the end, and I read the book. Which actually illustrates one of the points I have an issue with.

            The book occasionally moves too fast for its own good. There were times I wondered how Horkman and Peckerman got from point A to point B, and one point where I wondered "So are they still naked? I know they're no longer tied together, but when did that happen?" (Trust me, it makes sense in context.) I know I definitely missed details here and there, and I didn't want to go back and check, for fear that I'd lose the momentum of the story. But eventually it resolved itself. I just think perhaps a little more moderation might have been wise, but by the same turn, the book is constructed too tightly for such a thing to really be feasible. 

                The other thing, and this really isn't much of a complaint, is that the book is really, really thin. The authors appear to have wanted to focus on character more than plot and description, resulting in a very lightweight story that doesn't seem to have much meat on it. This probably adds to the confusion and the pace, but for the most part it just feels like vignettes to set up the characters, and that sort of bothered me. The other issue I have with the plot is that it gets a little repetitive, but the pace keeps it fairly fresh.

             In the end, these are minor complaints, and to address them would be to change the book from its ultimately enjoyable form. While this may not be as weighty as some of the other books reviewed here, it's a fun read-- and that's all it aspires to be-- a fun read and a good commentary on the world today. And it hits its target effortlessly. While buying this one may not be completely advisable, take it out from the library and kill a rainy day with it. You'll be glad you did. 


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