Book Review: Dave Barry Slept Here (1989)

A sort of history of the United States
by Dave Barry

DaveBarryWhat can one say that hasn’t been said already about Dave Barry, who sprung on the humor scene nationally in the early 80s with a syndicated column via the Miami Herald. “Funniest man alive” isn’t too far off the mark… and of course the question is why. What draws us to his zany worldview? That’s probably it! Dave Barry has a brilliant way of juxtaposing subjects, verbs, and objects of English prose from different worlds… that yield relevant commentary to our own experience:

“The typical lifestyle in the early colonies was very harsh. There was no such thing as the modern supermarket, which meant that the hardy colonists had to get up before dawn and spend many hours engaging in tedious tasks such as churning butter. They would put some butter in a churn, and they would whack it for several hours, and then they’d mop their brows and say, ‘Why the hell don’t we get a modern supermarket around here!’ And then, because it was illegal to curse, they would be forced to stand in the stocks while the first tourists took pictures of them.

“So it was harsh, all right, but nevertheless more and more persecuted religious minorities — Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Scientologists, Cubs fans — were flocking to freedom and establishing religious colonies such as Maryland and Heritage Village, USA, site of the New World’s first known Christian water slide.”

Nor does Barry hold back politically — he identifies himself explicitly as a libertarian and has even freely contributed to Libertarian Party related publications. He meets perverse political correctness head on: In the middle of discussing American colonial friction with the French… “The cause of this was…Hold it!  We have just received the following:

BarryBook… then Barry finishes, “Another important fact we just remembered is that during the colonial era women and minority groups were making many contributions, which we are certain they will continue to do at regularly spaced intervals throughout the course of this book….”

And sure enough at regular intervals in the remainder of the book, we see the stock statement: “At this time, women and minorities were making many contributions.” What a scream! But Barry saves the best skewering of the political establishment for true crimes against humanity, e.g.

“Thus the white men and the Native Americans were able, through the spirit of goodwill and compromise, to reach the first in what would become a long series of mutually beneficial, breached agreements that enabled the two cultures to coexist peacefully for stretches of twenty and sometimes thirty days, after which it was usually necessary to negotiate new agreements that would be even more mutual and beneficial, until ultimately the Native Americans were able to perceive the vast mutual benefits of living in rock-strewn sectors of South Dakota.”

Also taking on gross latter day imperialism. The trick is to make the point, show how the victims got stuck, while not being heavy handed. In such manner his observations become part of the culture ‘that everyone just knows’ to be true. Perhaps the better to encourage justice and amends. Even though Dave Barry shines with the fractured political and history narrative, he’s unexcelled in the observations of American daily life, which does occasionally pop out in Slept Here such as this snippet from ‘Culture in the Fifties.’

“Another important television show of the era was The Mickey Mouse Club, which made enormous cultural contributions, by which we mean Annette Funicello. Annette had a major impact on many of us male Baby Boomers, especially the part where she came marching out wearing a T-shirt with her name printed on it, and some of the letters were considerably closer to the camera than others. If you get our drift.”

Dave Barry can be read and reread, and sometimes the imagery results in the subsequent times in even more rolling on the floor laughing your ass off. Hard to stay funny today while in the grips of ‘insane men working for insane purposes.’ But 25-30 years ago, clever writers could still mine genuine humor. With Barry, we strike the Mother Lode. Laughter is a tonic that bears repeating: one book of many.

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