Well, I suppose in some ways it was quite brave for such a successful and established humour column writer to venture out into writing, as the cover says, ‘an actual novel’. While the occasional Wynton Marsalis might come along and suavely excel in disparate (if related) areas, there are cautionary tales of, say, respected TV actors not being able to manage the switch to the big screen, and vice-versa. And make no mistake, Barry gets away with it. It’s not a cringeworthy disappointment.
We expect a lot from Dave, and we get pretty much what we expected. This is perhaps unfortunate in some ways, but more on that later.
The book gives a lot of reign to what there is to love about Barry. His style is just so friendly and palatable that the pages roll by (I read this in a couple of days). His descriptions of characters and settings are clever and funny, as is his dialogue. With a little help from his A-list novelist friends, these are all put together within a workable action plot. It’s absurd, sure, but that’s not a mistake, it’s part of the conventions of this deliberately pulp tongue-in-cheek ludicrously paced action/thriller. I mean, it’s almost like a screenplay – the feel of this book is overwhelmingly familiar to anyone who’s spent any time watching Hollywood cop films, or something like ‘Pulp Fiction’: Barry’s hit men could be interchanged with this flick (as could Randy and Carlotta from ‘My Name is Earl’ for two other characters). Indeed, the cover is largely an add for the ‘soon to be’ motion picture. And it’s no coincidence that the three stunning women who will be appearing in the movie will, somehow, gosh darn it, find that the action just happens to takes place when they happen to be in a negligee or their underwear. Oh, and not one, or two, but all three of them will fall in mutual love (with blokes) at first sight (action films don’t have time for complex relationships: there’s a goodie, there’s a baddie, and there is a love interest). But, hey, even though it looks easy, movie formula type books are not so easy to pull off well. I suspect the publishers and the writer had the savvy to have a few able people read it through to ensure it wasn’t going to be an embarrassment. Big Trouble doesn’t make you gag or roll your eyes, and it’s novel to be given a new usable structure to enjoy Barry’s undeniable talents. We expected to enjoy the book, and it’s enjoyable.
Why might I quibble a bit and say it’s a shame that I wasn’t surprised?
I mean, it’s not as if Barry was trying to put himself across as the next Dostoyevsky. I think he was probably just happy to be able to put something together that wasn’t bad, and hats off to him for managing it in his first try at a novel. But by the end I found the plot was just starting to get in the way. What makes me pick up Barry over other writers is his able way of expressing his occasionally surreal perspective; I can flick to half the movies coming out of the US in the last decade or two to pick up people with guns running purposefully around airports or the like.
But, you know, some writers use novels to do something a bit more profound than a slick big-budget movie does. Or something a bit deeper than a humour column. Big Trouble, however, doesn’t reveal new dimensions or perceptions in Dave – rather they just confirm that we’re reading something by one of the top humour columnists around. To return to my jazz/classical crossover comparison (sorry if I sound too much like a w*nker here, but I reckon it works), I’ve heard a few classical players perform in jazz contexts – with unsurprisingly perfect pitch, lovely tone, and flawless technique. As established professionals they’ve got a team of people around them that are not going to let them go out and just make fools of themselves. But Yo-Yo Ma, for example, is a novelty rather than a jazz musician. Marsalis, however, can take you to a higher place whether sticking close to centuries old dots or playing havoc with a blues. Yo-Yo can play Monk with unimpeachable accuracy, he’s an accomplished musician – yet at some point you wonder what the point is of someone playing ‘jazz’ who is not even attempting to improvise?!
Iain Banks, in contrast, is a rare author who manages to have a foot firmly in two literary worlds, and although his SF books deal with some similar themes and may offer characters as complex as his contemporary novels, they require quite different skills. Perhaps I should wait and see though: Ben Elton’s first few books were, unsurprisingly, a talented comic scriptwriter adapting his skills to more formulaic and filmic novels. But by the time we get to excellent works like Popcorn and The First Casualty Elton’s reputation could stand without reference to the significantly different performances that initially established his fame. How cool would it be to be able to say that in a few years about someone as revered as Dave Barry?