Seth Weinstein could be John Dortmunder's half-brother.
Dortmunder is the protagonist in a series of 14 "caper" novels by the late writer Donald E. Westlake. A marginally successful small-time thief, Dortmunder and his accomplices would turn even the simplest, well-thought-out crime into a logistical disaster. Nevertheless, things would turn out all right for them -- mostly -- in the closing pages.
The same sort of disasters and unlikely triumphs follow Seth Weinstein, the hero of Dave Barry's "Insane City."
Mr. Barry, a longtime humor columnist, has had a second life as a comic novelist and a third life as the co-author of a series of books for young readers that provide a back story for Peter Pan. He is back on familiar ground with "Insane City," his fifth novel.
Mr. Barry starts with a cliche situation: a bachelor party gone horribly wrong. But Mr. Barry twists his tale around and backward and back onto itself. He manages to meld the fates of star-crossed lovers, a trio of half-drowned Haitian refugees, a friendless billionaire, several species of clueless security guards and Trevor, a 250-pound orangutan. They all meet up at a Florida destination wedding presided over by an imperious bride.
By Dave Barry.
Mr. Barry's catchphrase in his newspaper columns, whenever he described some insane but true behavior, was, "And I am not making this up." In "Insane City" he is making it up. So Seth's answer, when he has to explain why he has a stripper hidden in his hotel room or why his groomsmen aren't wearing clothes or why he has been accused of robbing a convenience store, is "It's complicated."
And so it is.
Seth is a 30-ish slacker who, for reasons that continue to escape him, is about to marry Tina Clark. She is the beautiful, accomplished and intimidating offspring of Mike Clark, a man so rich he may not know how many private helicopters he owns. Think Mitt Romney, but with daughters.
Tina's pot-smoking sister, Meghan, tries to explain to Seth why Tina would fall for Seth. Her answer isn't believable, but it advances the plot.
Seth's numbskull buddies, Marty, Kevin and Big Steve, exist primarily to find new ways to embarrass him in the hours before the wedding. Ditto for his elderly parents, Rose and Sid.
Mr. Barry remains the master of the well-crafted throwaway line and the insightful observation. "If women don't want crude propositions written by illiterates on barf bags, what do they want?" Seth asks rhetorically. Early in the novel he observes: "Kevin as always, was on his cell phone, lying to somebody about something."
Mr. Barry is not overly sentimental about the bonds between parents and children. Meeting Seth at the Miami Airport, "His mother turned and registered his presence, her face adopting an expression she had shown him as long as he could remember -- love tempered by the disappointment of a woman who had just the one child, relatively late in life, and had decided that motherhood was not all that it had been cracked up to be."
The set for a well-crafted stage farce requires a series of doors that the actors can open and slam shut with exquisite timing. In "Insane City" Mr. Barry offers the literary equivalent, juggling a half-dozen stories that finally come together with a wedding aboard a pirate ship. That's appropriate. A story that ends in marriage, according to the poet Lord Byron, is the very definition of a comedy.
Len Barcousky: email@example.com or 412-263-1159.