Monday, April 04, 2011

I'll Mature When I'm Dead by Dave Barry

Dave Barry is not a serious writer, or a deep writer, or an important writer. But he's a funny writer, and has been consistently funny for about thirty years now, which is no small thing. (I realize that I actually remember when Barry moved his column to the Miami Herald, back in the late '80s, and that I worried that it might be bad for his Northeastern-guy humor. It wasn't.)

Barry is probably the last of the great American newspaper humorists, part of a tradition that flourished hugely in the generation just before his -- with Art Buchwald, Mike Royko, Russell Baker, and plenty of others -- but stretches back past Mark Twain to Kin Hubbard and other names forgotten by all but specialists today. Barry is a smartass, as the newspaper humorist so often were, but it was always a soft smartassery, suitable for your hip aunt if not for your disapproving grandmother. And even a decade out of the day-to-day newspaper grind, he still writes short, puffy pieces that avoid the real third-rails of American writing (politics, religion, and privilege) while focusing on superficially transgressive material: fart jokes, booger jokes, "men are stupid" jokes, "women are crazy" jokes, "aren't we suburban people wacky" jokes. And he has the requisite sentimental streak -- American newspapers are as sentimental as the day is long -- winning the Pulitzer in the '80s in large part for a column about the birth of his son and continuing to dive into pathos in between booger jokes.

I'll Mature When I'm Dead is an original collection of Barry essays, possibly the first of its kind. He's written standalone books for decades -- all the way back to his first, The Taming of the Screw -- but they were always about single topics, while the essay collections gathered up a bunch of newspaper columns (and they did pile up, at one or more a week) to give them a more permanent form. So this book is a lot like many other Barry books, miscellaneous and scattershot, jumping from the amusements of his wife's Judaism to riffs on Miami, from a nearly-straight account of why men should get a colonoscopy at age fifty to a (quite good) Twilight parody, from his script for 24 to an examination of why youth sports are being ruined by parents. It's all fairly obvious material; Barry has never been a trail-blazer, and his topics are usually ones that have been well-worked by others. But that's part of the appeal, as well: like a Borscht Belt comedian, Barry tells you the jokes you expect, about the things you already think are funny, and makes you laugh at them every Sunday night (for a two-drink minimum.)

This is a silly book, with very little substance in it. Barry instinctively realizes that no one goes to him for real seriousness, and he relies on faux-seriousness when he comes close to important issues. It's a fine Dave Barry book, entirely suited for reading on an airplane, in the smallest room in the house (though these essays are notably longer than his old newspaper columns, which may fit less well in that milieu), or -- as I read it -- on a train. If you're within two sigma of being a typical American, Dave Barry will make you chuckle out loud at least once with this book.

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