I’m about to commit blasphemy.
Dave Barry has probably influenced my “voice” more than any other single writer. I love Barry–as in man-crush love. (His writing, not his manly physique or cutting-edge hairstyle.) I can only dream of being as talented, or successful, as he. That said . . .
Recently, I picked up his recent novel, Insane City. I found it rather flat, something unthinkable when reading Dave Barry. The problem wasn’t so much the characters, the plot, or even the humor, but rather how Barry used humor in this story.
The following except was particularly jarring. In this scene, Barry’s main character, Seth, is entering a Miami-area bar during the “Miss Hot Amateur Bod Competition.” Here is how Barry describes the scene:
Standing near the DJ were a dozen young women wearing garments that, if all of them were combined, might have provided enough fabric to make a sock.
“We should stop here,” said Kevin.
“No, we shouldn’t,” said Seth. “We should get to the Ritz.”
The “sock” line isn’t bad. Had it appeared in one of Barry’s non-fiction pieces I would have laughed, or at least chuckled. But in this case the line jarred me right out of the story. After a moment I realized why:
Because the line isn’t in Seth’s viewpoint—it’s in Barry’s.
I’ve read tomes describing the importance of viewpoint and all its myriad rules. (Rules that virtually every best-selling writer seems to break at will, but that’s another issue.) Nothing Seth has said, done, or observed to this point in the story led me to think he would use this kind of hyperbole. The line describes nothing of Seth’s reaction to his situation; it’s merely setting. But as soon as I read it, I thought, “Dave Barry.”
When Barry is writing non-fic, we are in his viewpoint. Exaggeration is how Barry views the world, not the characters in Insane City. Had Barry written something like, “Standing near the DJ were a dozen young, nearly naked, women. Seth calculated their square footage of clothing at just under one sock,” the narrative description would have provided setting while the subsequent viewpoint (and voice) would have belonged to Seth, instead of the author. We would have observed the scene the way Seth did, and gathered something about his character as well.
As a comparison, here is a line from my novel, Miss Illusions, where my protagonist, magician Jacob Reese, finds himself in a similar situation thanks to the mysterious con-woman (Nikki) who has whisked him into her world:
Nikki turned into the lighted room, and Jacob heard several squeals of delight. He stepped into the room behind her and froze.
A half-dozen women came rushing up to Nikki, women as beautiful as they were naked, and vice versa. Jacob felt his lower jaw drop somewhere around his top shirt button as he tried to look everywhere and nowhere at once.
By keeping this moment in Jacob’s viewpoint, I try to describe the setting (a roomful of naked strippers), Jacob’s reaction (fish-out-of-water astonishment), and by the juxtaposition of those elements something about Jacob’s character—the tension between his lust and chivalry.
Later in the scene, after Nikki, to Jacob’s horror, has introduced him as a famous porn star:
Sugar stepped closer, her nipples pointing at him like a pair of lethal weapons. “Looking for new talent?” she asked, running her fingertips over the inner curve of her breasts. “Maybe you could give me an audition. . . . I’m up for taking it to the next level, see what these puppies can do!” She gave her shoulders a little shake. Jacob’s pants tightened in such a way he wondered if he was supposed to pay her money.
In this scene, Jacob feels threatened (“lethal weapons”) by the stripper’s nudity and brazenness. He has a natural, healthy male reaction to her, but the final phrase (“he wondered if he was supposed to pay her”) illustrates his awkwardness and discomfiture. By staying in his viewpoint, I have simultaneously described the scene and further established Jacob’s character, hopefully by layering my authorial voice into Jacob’s personality rather than imposing it onto the narrative.
Perhaps this is a minor complaint. Perhaps it arises only because I’ve been conditioned to look for viewpoint issues from about a thousand books, articles, workshops, seminars, and panels I’ve endured over the years. But I found myself unwilling to finish Insane City because I wanted to feel like I was reading a story about real people, rather than fiction interspersed with authorial witticisms.
Even witticisms by one of my heroes.