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Dave Barry's 'Insane' Miami Mixes Refugees, Gangsters, Escorts And A Burmese Python

Jan 26, 2013
Originally published on January 26, 2013 5:36 pm

It wouldn't do to call Insane City "a typical Dave Barry novel." What kind of thing is that to say about a book? The story begins with a bachelor dinner that goes off the rails, then brings in Russian mobsters, the fourth-place finisher in the Miss Hot Amateur Bod contest, a goodhearted escort and her "sales representative," if you please, an albino Burmese python — or is that a Burmese albino python? — a half-dozen scheming businessmen, a Haitian refugee fleeing desperation with her two children, tough guys buying diapers, a car chase, a tropical moon, a boat chase and an orangutan named Trevor who winds up with the wedding ring.

But Insane City isn't all humor — it weaves in darker threads, like the story of a Haitian refugee with two children, washed in on the ocean tides and trying to make a life in the States. "I attended a wedding on Key Biscayne at the Ritz Carlton," Barry tells NPR's Scott Simon, "and you sit facing the water, the ocean, and I dunno, I was just sitting there while the ceremony was about to begin, looking out at the ocean and thinking, 'What would happen if, like, right now, a raft came up?' Because it does happen — Key Biscayne is where they land a lot. That's really what got me started." And he made his refugee Haitian, Barry says, because Haitian refugees often get sent back, whereas Cubans are allowed to stay.

Miami, where the refugees and the party people and the tourists and the wedding guests and the gangsters (and the python) all mix, is "this stew of ingredients that never really come together right," Barry says. "Then we have the fact that it's basically a swamp. ... Right now we have an infestation of Burmese pythons — gigantic snakes — and it just never ever calms down down here."

"The first day of my life as a homeowner in South Florida," he continues, "I walked down onto my lawn to get the newspaper, and on my lawn were crabs. Like, not just a few, but hundreds and hundreds of crabs. And they were not happy. Turns out it was crab mating season, and they were waving their pincers at me angrily, like I wanted to mate with their women. I didn't want their women — their women are crabs! But they didn't know that, or maybe they were bitter about that, I don't know."

But, Barry says, he loves his adopted hometown. "I moved here in 1986 from the United States, and I have come to really love it here. And it's a great place to be a humor writer. Carl Hiaasen ... his quote is, 'You really don't need an imagination to write fiction about South Florida, you just need a subscription to The Miami Herald.' " Barry, it should be noted, won a Pulitzer Prize for his Miami Herald commentary work in 1988.

Barry no longer writes a regular column for The Miami Herald, and he says traditional city columns like his, or those of Mike Royko in Chicago and Jimmy Breslin in New York, have been "tweeted out of existence. The time that people used to spend crafting one thoughtful 800-word piece, they're more likely to spend now dashing off 53 one-liners, because that's going to get them a much broader audience." Covering the political conventions last summer, he says, he noticed that a lot of journalism has become tweeting — though whether that's a bad thing or not, he won't say.

"I remember the first campaign where I went to Iowa and New Hampshire, and I remember seeing, like, David Broder and all those guys at the bar, and you would hear them talking about what was going on," he says, "and then a couple of days later, you would read their pieces. And now it all happens in seconds and minutes, and it happens while the speech is going on, it's being analyzed. ... It's just different. Very, very different."

Newspapers are under siege, too, Barry says. "The business model they operated under for decades and decades, where Sears bought a gigantic ad for a whole lot of money, because we were the only vehicle for that, and so we made tons and tons of money. And we thought, in journalism, that we got all that money because we had a bureau in London and a bureau in Rome, and we had bureaus all over the place, because we were The Miami Herald, and we had bureaus everywhere, and we were making all this money, and it must be because we were doing great journalism." And then the Internet arrived, he continues, "and all of a sudden, we aren't necessary for any advertiser the way we used to be ... and it turns out that the public wasn't demanding that we provide them with this level of journalism that we thought was so important to them."

A big local newspaper is kind of like a big local sports team, Barry says — central to a city's sense of community, even if it occasionally takes some flak. "I think the Herald spoke more for the community and reflected the community better than any other institution down here could, and now there is no institution to replace that ... and I think that's true of many, many cities now."

So, is this an opportunity for novelists to step in? "Novelists have been trying to step in for hundreds of years," Barry says, laughing. "I think the same forces that are sort of working against newspapers probably are also working to some extent against books. ... It just feels like everything happens so fast now, and everybody goes on to the next subject so quickly now. Books seem a little archaic, except as entertainment, you know, as an escape from policy and that sort of thing."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. I wouldn't want to call "Insane City" a typical Dave Barry novel. What kind of thing is that to say about a book? The story begins with a bachelor dinner that goes off the rails, then brings in Russian mobsters, the fourth place finisher of Miss Hot Amateur Bod, a good-hearted escort and her sales representative, a half-dozen scheming businessmen, a Haitian refugee fleeing desperation with her two children, tough guys buying diapers, a car chase, a tropical moon, a boat chase, and an orangutan named Trevor, who winds up with the wedding ring. Come to think of it, what else can you call a book like that except "Insane City"? It's Dave Barry's first novel in more than 10 years, though he has been writing other best-sellers during that time, including "Dave Barry's History of the Millennium (So Far)." He won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary with the Miami Herald in 1988. They can't take it back, so Dave Barry even joins us from the studios at the Miami Herald today. Thanks so much for being with us.

DAVE BARRY: It's my pleasure. Thanks.

SIMON: I'm struck in this novel by an utterly serious subplot you have that revolves around Loretta - Haitian woman and her two children - struggling to make new lives in the United States, washing in from the sea. What made you put that in there?

BARRY: I attended a wedding on Key Biscayne at the Ritz-Carlton, which is a beautiful hotel over there. And you sit facing the water, the ocean. And thinking what would happen if like right now a raft came up - because it does happen. Key Biscayne is where they land a lot. That's really what got me started. And I thought, well, it would be Cuban. No, it should be Haitians because for the most part Haitians get sent back and Cubans don't. And then I started thinking about that story.

SIMON: Well, help us understand the place a bit.

BARRY: Well, the main thing is it's this stew of ingredients that really never quite come together right. We have people from all over the world who come here to visit and to party and it's a lot of them just to live or to get away from something. Then we have the fact that it's basically a swamp. I mean, I live in a swamp. Right now, we have an infestations of Burmese pythons, gigantic snakes, roaming around the Everglades, and it just never, ever calms down. down here.

SIMON: You make it sound like it's a city that's been only nominally reclaimed from the wilds of swampland.

BARRY: It hasn't been reclaimed. When I first moved here, the first day of my life as a homeowner in South Florida, I walked out onto my lawn to get the newspaper, and on my lawn were crabs. Like, not just a few but hundreds and hundreds of crabs, and they were not happy about me being there because it turns out it was crab mating season. And they were, like, waving their pinchers at me, like, angrily, like, I wanted to mate with their women. I didn't want their women. Their women are crabs, you know. But they didn't know that - or maybe they were bitter about that. I don't know. But I remember sprinting back into my house barefoot, afraid to go out and get the paper. I thought where I have I moved? I lived in Pennsylvania. We had crabgrass. But here we have crabs.

SIMON: You really love Miami, don't you? You're from Pennsylvania, but you really love Miami.

BARRY: I do. I moved here in 1986 from the United States and I have come to really love it here. And it's a great place to be a humor writer. Carl Hiaasen is probably the best there is down here.

SIMON: The crime novelist, yeah.

BARRY: His quote is: "You really don't' need an imagination to write fiction about South Florida. You just need a subscription to the Miami Herald."

SIMON: What is blogging and all kind of things, personal commentary that we're reading on the Web, done to the institution of the great city columnist. I think of you when you were with the Miami Herald full-time. You know, but you inevitably think of Mike Royko, Jimmy Breslin. What's happened?

BARRY: Well, we've been tweeted out of existence. The time that people used to spend crafting one thoughtful 800-word piece, they're more likely to spend now dashing off 53 one-liners, because that's going to get them a lot broader audience. I covered both conventions last summer. And I don't really mean this as criticism of political journalism - I don't know if it's bad or good - I just noticed how much of what journalism has become is now tweeting. You know, like, I remember my first campaign where I went to Iowa and New Hampshire, and I remember seeing, like, David Broder and all those guys at the bar. And you would hear them talk about what's going on. And then a couple of days later you would read their pieces. And now it all happens in seconds and minutes and it happens while the speech is going on; it's being analyzed and that sort of thing. Just different - very, very different.

SIMON: And if I can draw you out on this a bit. What's happened to great local, regional newspapers?

BARRY: Newspapers are being destroyed, utterly destroyed. Their business model they operated under for decades and decades, where, you know, Sears bought a gigantic ad for a whole lot of money because we were the only vehicle for that. And so we made tons and tons of money. And we thought in journalism we got all that money because we had, you know, a bureau in London and bureau in Rome and we had bureaus all over the place. 'Cause we were the Miami Herald and we had bureaus everywhere and we were making all this money, and it must be because we were doing great journalism.

And then comes along the Internet, and all of the sudden we aren't necessary for any advertiser the way we used to be to reach an audience quickly. And it turns out that the public wasn't demanding that we provide them with this level of journalism that we thought was so important to them. And we're left with the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, to some extent the Washington Post, the L.A. Times. But I don't think even they are what they were. And I don't have an answer to that. I don't know if anybody does.

SIMON: Does that somehow reduce the identity of a city sometimes if they're not able to read about themselves, or...

BARRY: Yeah. I think a big local newspaper, you know, was kind of like the big local sports team. There's always been hostility toward the big, local paper but I think there was a certain amount of pride in it. And this is our paper. We are a big-time city. I think the Herald spoke more for the community and reflected the community better than any other institution down here could. And now there is no institution to replace that, unless, you know, you talk about sports team or something like that. And I think that's true of many, many cities now.

SIMON: We talk so much about newspapers. Is journalism going to survive? Has that become DIY? Is this an opportunity for novelists to step in?

BARRY: You know, novelists have been trying to step in for hundreds of years. And I think the same forces that are sort of working against newspapers probably are also working, to some extent, against books. I just, I don't know. It just feels like everything happens so fast now and everybody, you know, goes on to the next subject so quickly now. Books seem a little archaic, except as entertainment and, you know, as an escape from policy and that sort of thing.

SIMON: Dave Barry. His new novel, "Insane City." Speaking with us, of course, from Miami. Dave, thanks so much for being with us.

BARRY: It's always a pleasure, Scott. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.