Monday, June 2, 2014

Insane City

"And then everybody got arrested."  

        I've been struggling a little with this review, and I couldn't figure out why. Insane City is a book that's a lot of fun, the dialogue is great, though it's beyond loose, and the characters are colorful and exist in more than one dimension, which is rare in certain genres these days. And it's by Dave Barry, one of my favorite authors and one of the few people in the Florida crime genre not to have fallen into the rut of formulaic writing. But trying to quantify the book got harder and harder, and every time I looked at what I'd written, I just got more and more pissed off. And finally, something clicked and locked into place earlier this morning, something that finally made everything make perfect sense:

       I couldn't review the book the way I did every other book for one fundamental reason: There's not actually much there to review. Which isn't to say that there isn't a book there, there's definitely a book, but there isn't actually too much to it. It's a series of vignettes and character sketches that eventually coalesce into a beautiful chase sequence at the end of the novel, but I just can't dissect this one the way I usually do. How do you pick apart a book that works well as a whole, but falls apart under closer scrutiny? 

        Well, you don't, obviously, because the whole thing falls apart that way. The entire insane mess whirls around these characters and scenes, never slowing down.  When it finally reaches its ending and collapses, exhausted, on the ground for the epilogue, then you're left with the feeling that you've read something enjoyable. Lacking in substance, full of snarky asides to issues with Florida, and with the usual complaints about twenty-first century air travel, but definitely enjoyable.

But if I just ended the review there, you guys would feel cheated. Well-- since this is two days behind deadline, more cheated than you already are*. 

So, as I attempt to make some sense of this...

More, as always, below.

                   Insane City is centered around the wedding of Seth Weinstein and Tina Clark. Seth and Tina love each other very much, though no one can really understand why or how they stay together. Seth is a lower-middle-class guy who tweets about feminine hygiene products for a corporate social-marketing firm. Tina is a high-powered lawyer who deals mainly in civil liberties and whatever cause celebre she can find at the time. Tina's father is one of the world's most powerful men, part of a shadowy group known as "The Group of Eleven", able to treat the world as nothing more than a minor inconvenience and laws as helpful suggestions. He's using his daughter's wedding as a kind of power grab, hoping to move up into the even more secretive group known as the Group of Six. Also in tow is Tina's sister Meghan, who mainly uses her status as the daughter of someone rich and powerful to get high a lot and annoy everyone.

                   Seth's friends, a group of rambunctious leches who call themselves "the Groom Posse", have a bachelor party planned where they will pull out all the stops. The "fun" starts with a prank where they sneak an artificial vagina into Seth's bag just before he goes through airport security, but between that and the airport scene where a drug-sniffing dog happens to sense something suspicious about Tina's suitcase, everyone manages to get out unscathed, and Seth and his friends take a cab to the hotel, the Ritz-Carlton out on one of the Keys.


                     Except the cabdriver doesn't seem to know where they're supposed to go and instead drives them around in circles before dropping them at a different Ritz. Disheartened, our nominal heroes go looking for the nearest bar to get drunk, where Seth gets kicked in the head by Cyndi, the third-place winner of the Miss Hot Body contest at the bar. While drunk and suffering from head trauma, Seth wanders by his future in-laws and then finds his way up to the suite he had booked...

...where he meets the stripper the Groom Posse got for him. And her massive pimp. To relax, the addled Seth finds his way down to Tina's room, where he meets Meghan. Who gets him high. When he wakes up on the beach, he finds a Hatian woman near death and resuscitates her. And so begins Seth Weinstein's descent into Hell. By the end of the book, he will have dodged corrupt ex-cops, a vicious orangutan named Trevor, and an albino python named Blossom. Everyone will be changed by the end of the weekend, and hopefully Seth will end his time transformed and ready for whatever it is life will throw at him. Provided, of course, he survives the wedding.

                 What follows is a series of more or less scenes arranged in chronological order. I got the sense from the book that Barry was, in some way, trying to write something more cinematic than his previous offerings in the crime genre, and it definitely shows. While the action is (at least from the general focus of the book) focused on Seth and his problems (the stripper, her pimp, the Hatians, and trying to get ready for his eventual wedding), it spirals off at various points. There's a brilliant sequence after the entire wedding party accidentally ingests pot brownies that ends with an argument about what animal should have been cooked in a pot in Fatal Attraction other than a rabbit (because it would just hop out). In fact, the strength of the book is in the vignettes-- the little conversations, the dumb bits of humor, Cyndi talking about why no one should ever make her angry or wrong her...stuff like that. In fact, if there were a character in desperate need of more to do, it's Seth. As a character, he's merely kind of a straight man for the chaos around him to bounce off, and when at the end he does finally join the chaos rather than fighting it, it's far too late to get him involved. While he does show some backbone, it's not nearly enough as he could show.

              Insane City is a novel that runs on the strength of its pacing and dialogue. Barry shows very little restraint (Okay, more than Tim Dorsey, but still), but a tremendous control over the pacing and conversations. The dialogue all sounds very real and very three-dimensional, and the fights Seth and Tina have sound very real, as well. But the pacing is the real star of the show. Remember how in the first paragraph or so I said there was nothing at all to the book? You didn't read it? Go back up. I'll wait. 

           Okay, so while there's nothing to the book, the book moves at such a breakneck speed with such willful anarchy that it took me a while to notice. It's a trait of great authors-- the really great ones, they can make it look like they're doing something grand when they're doing absolutely nothing at all. Sometimes, this is irritating. Dave Barry makes it liberating. He makes Insane City a breezy, fast-moving read that seems more cinematic than any book I've ever read, as if he were pitching directly for someone to make this and put it on screen.  And it would work better as a film

             But with the lack of substance comes something else: A lack of memorable moments. There were sequences that had me laughing, practically on the floor. Particularly the one about the rabbit in the pot, as opposed to a chicken, or perhaps a lobster. Or the fistfights with the orangutan. But overall, if you asked me to recount the events from beginning to end, I wouldn't have a prayer. It's almost maddeningly blank, daring me to remember passages of it.

             This is, of course, no reason not to read it. It's a fun summer read, a nice piece of escapism with some biting cynicism and gentle jabs at human nature mixed in. So take it out of the library and give it a good read-through. At worst, you kill an afternoon with a fun book. At best, you read someone who's still at the peak of his game writing something well worthwhile. Either way, can't go wrong.

- The Black Opera by Mary Gentle

I embark on another Long Books month to read some meatier work and try to reset my schedule a little. Details will be forthcoming soon.


*Four days of anxiety attacks do not a successful review make

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