He's Dave Barry, because you're not
Humorist takes on 'Tricky Business' in new novel
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- About midway through Dave Barry's new novel, "Tricky Business" (Putnam), several characters in a small room on a boat find themselves having, uh, trouble controlling their digestive tracts.
As each character loses his cookies, Barry's prose helps the reader almost smell the vomit sloshing all over the principals. The novelist, humor columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner is justifiably proud of his creation.
"I believe that's one of the finest action regurgitation scenes in the history of literature," Barry says in a phone interview from a book tour stop in New York. "I'd put it right up there."
Barry takes his job as a novelist seriously, you see. OK, so he doesn't plan his books out in advance -- "I'd never start writing if I had to do that," he says -- and the majority of "Tricky Business" was written in about a month. But there was rarely a moment, over the course of the year he was working on it, when he wasn't thinking about the book, especially when the publisher was calling and he had to write his newspaper column.
Throughout it all, he notes, the book was always festering in his head.
Professional writers know that novel-writing usually works that way. The method even has a name, Barry says.
"We call it the 'festering process,' " he says.
Casino ships and bar-band musicians
In all seriousness, it's a tribute to Barry's abilities as a writer that "Tricky Business" works so well. The book features several characters and plot strands that all converge during a voyage of The Extravaganza of the Seas, a floating casino that plies its trade sailing safely (and barely legally) in international waters just outside Miami. Barry juggles the plots and characters with aplomb and -- naturally -- good humor.
The hero -- if there is such a thing -- of Barry's story is Wally Hartley, a bar-band musician who long ago missed his chance at rock stardom and now makes a borderline living playing cover songs. There is also a pair of feisty old men, some drug smugglers, the corrupt owner of a fast-food chain, a hapless and self-important TV news team, and a giant conch suit.
Barry gets in some nifty pot-shots at South Florida and the kinds of sleazy goings-on that go on in that part of the Sunshine State.
The casino ship, he says, was particularly fun to write about.
"It's sort of exotic and offered opportunities for mayhem," he says. "It's sort of a sleazy industry anyway -- not all of them, but this [type of ship] is not for genuine high rollers.
"I wonder what they're rolling," he ponders aloud. "They're probably rolling their own."
Barry also had a good time with Wally's band, Johnny and the Contusions. The one-time high school group was originally named Arrival, but it never actually arrived, and the band now entertains itself with "revenge songs" when it's unhappy with the easy-listening requests of patrons.
"For example," Barry writes, "if the band had to play 'My Way,' it would counterattack with Bobby Goldsboro's sap-oozing piece of dreck, 'Honey.' "
One night, when the band is forced to play "The Ballad of the Green Berets" twice, it strikes back "with the hydrogen bomb of retaliation songs: 'In the Year 2525,' the relentlessly ugly Zager and Evans song with the disturbingly weird lyrics."
"It's a concept I've often thought of," Barry says. You get the feeling he's looking forward to bands across the country taking up the cry.
'Writing books is easier'
Even with two novels under his belt, Barry still considers himself a columnist first. "I always take the column most seriously," he says. "If anything gets pushed aside, it won't be that."
Besides, writing novels can be hard work. Although he generally knows what will happen in the scene he's writing, maintaining the plot -- especially one with the twists of "Tricky Business" -- is a challenge.
"I'm halfway through before I know how it will end," he says. In the case of "Tricky Business," he turned to a friend, Gene Weingarten, who read the book at its midway point and offered some ideas on how to continue.
Barry's first novel, "Big Trouble," got turned into a movie, though one with an ill-fated history: initially set for release just after September 11, certain plot points prompted its studio to hold the film until late winter, where it faded quickly. Barry isn't concerned about the fate of "Tricky Business," though he says it's also attracted Hollywood interest.
"When you sign the contract, they can do anything they want," he says. "I don't have ambitions where film is concerned. There are too many people involved and a certain number are going to be idiots. Writing books is easier."
Besides, there is a payoff: the reaction of the people he meets on a book tour.
"I like the book signings. That's when it seems most real," he says. "It's always reassuring to me. As a writer, you just don't get a direct response."