For the Birds Radio Program: Book Review: Dave Barry's Big Trouble

Original Air Date: Sept. 20, 1999 (estimated date)

Laura reviews a book with barely any references to birds.

Audio missing


Hawks are flying early this year. On September 11, they counted over 16,000 at Hawk Ridge, and for several days following that the count exceeded a thousand. Despite all that, I’ve only been able to spend a few hours up at the Ridge, but on Monday the 13th I didn’t mind missing a few hawks—that was the day I got my copy of Dave Barry ‘ s new novel, Big Trouble. The moment I opened it I was sucked into a wacky yet genuinely sweet and twisted world of mayhem, nuclear weaponry, and lovely music emanating from a Fisher Price tape recorder. I was instantly so engrossed in his well-drawn characters and hilarious plot that a Prairie Falcon could have flown right over my head and bonked me and I wouldn’t have noticed.

There aren’t any birds in Big Trouble—the characters that come closest are a South American toad, a python named Daphne, and a dog named Roger with a brain the size of a raisinet. I did find a reference to a guy falling down in the darkness “like a 200-pound bag of suet,” and one guy who wears “enough Brut to kill small birds.” A couple of F-16’s play a crucial role, though I’m sure Dave Barry wasn’t aware of the tie-in F-16’s have to Duluth birds. Back on September 18, 1992, an Air National Guard F-16 collided with a flock of Lesser Golden Plovers on taking off at the Duluth International Airport. Two of the plovers got sucked into the single engine, killing it and themselves. The pilot pointed the jet away from houses and ejected safely.

Even if Dave Barry didn’t write much about birds, his book is a suitable topic for “For the Birds” because Dave Barry is as close to a real live human Blue Jay as we have on this planet. Mark Twain’s favorite bird was the Blue Jay. He wrote:

As for command of language-why, you never see a blue-jay get stuck for a word. No man ever did. They just boil out of him!

Twain goes on:

A jay’s gifts, and instincts, and feelings, and interests cover the whole ground. A jay hasn’t got any more principle than a Congressman. A jay can cry, a jay can laugh, a jay can feel shame, a jay can reason and plan and discuss, a jay likes gossip and scandal, a jay has got a sense of humor, a jay knows when he is an ass just as well as you do—maybe better.

The humor in all of Dave Barry’ s books reminds me of Blue Jays. You don’t need a lot of talent to laugh at America in the 90s, whether you voted in the last election for the man who was about to become the spokesman for Viagra or the man who needed a powerful antidote to Viagra.

But Dave Barry doesn’t make nasty one liners while looking cynically down on everyone else, the way Maureen Dowd does. Like a Blue Jay, he laughs at himself as readily as he does at anyone else. Life is ridiculous and crazy and sometimes filled with tenderness and joy and sometimes downright mean, and Dave Barry manages to point out all that while never becoming mean-spirited himself. He has a better, and more generous take on what goes on in the hearts and souls of people of different social stations than most writers, and the uncanny ability to choose exactly the right details and dialogue to flesh out characters perfectly in a minimum number of brush strokes.

In this extraordinary novel, he creates a whole slew of people who are each surprisingly well drawn for a novel so heavy on plot and humor. A few exquisite scenes between a homeless man and an illegal-alien maid are written with the sensitivity and tenderness that earned Barry his Pulitzer Prize. This book made me laugh so hard I cried, and in a couple of places it brought me to the brink of another kind of tears. This is a wonderful first attempt at fiction, and I’m looking forward to a lot more Dave Barry novels in the future. I just hope he puts a bird in the next one, or at least has a character give someone the bird.