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IN DAVE BARRY'S FLORIDA, FICTION IS THE BARELY CLAD TRUTH

BIG TROUBLE
By Dave Barry
Putnam
255 pages, $23.95

One of the enduring attractions of Florida screwball fiction, as practiced by masters such as Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard, remains its uncanny knack for predicting the jaw-dropping craziness of the place itself.

It's a genre where many scenes seem impossibly outlandish, many characters too colorful to exist in this dimension -- until, that is, one reads the newspapers.

A sexually aroused porpoise literally loving a man to death in an aquatic park? An official animal-sacrifice area outside a courthouse for Santeria-believing defendants to conduct leniency ceremonies? A neighborhood anti-drug meeting interrupted by actual bales of cocaine falling from the sky, dumped by a smuggler's plane?

Read the papers. Again and again, Florida has proved itself stranger than fiction.

Just as I was about to dismiss Dave Barry's first novel, "Big Trouble," as a game but overly nutty effort at Florida screwball fiction, Florida law enforcement held a press conference. Miami International's security was so porous, they said, that airline workers developed sidelines in taking not only cocaine bricks, but fragmentation grenades aboard passenger airliners.

Whew. So the major plot development anchoring the frantic last third of this book is, unfortunately for Miami-bound air travelers, hardly beyond the pale.

Not that Barry's tale, involving hit men, Russian Mafia arms dealers, violent panhandlers, a failed journalist and a psychedelic toad, would ever be mistaken for a documentary.

There's Matt Arnold, one of a pair of high school kids who are intent on their game of Killer, an amusement involving spraying targets with squirt guns to "assassinate" them and advance in the game. Their target is one Jenny Herk, who's awfully cute, don't you know.

Their game turns out a bit complicated when they arrive at Jenny's house just as a pair of real assassins do. The hit men are aiming at Jenny's dad, one Arthur Herk, a bagman for a crooked corporation with a fatal penchant for taking a little off the top for himself.

After a failed attempt on both Herks, Arthur, realizing his own people want him dead, looks for something he can trade to the FBI for immunity. From a Coconut Grove arms dealership camouflaged as a scuzzy bar, he procures a bomb in a nifty metal suitcase.

But before he can make his pitch to the feds, Herk runs into practitioners of Miami's official sport, home invasion. Two stumblebums relieve him of the suitcase, which they see as their ticket to fortune, and swipe his daughter Jenny for extra insurance.

Enter the FBI, looking for the suitcase, which turns out to be much more than your basic Miami suitcase bomb, of course. Good cops, bad cops, concerned parents and hit men all light out for Miami International, on the stumblebums' trail, where their various missions are complicated by goats.

Every Floridian screwball fiction requires an extended chase scene to heighten tensions as characters (and readers) race the end of the book, and "Big Trouble" is no exception.

It's funnier than most novels, for sure. But if you're among those who've stopped reading Barry's weekly column, this book won't bring you back. There are one-liners and situation comedy aplenty, but Barry's not carving out any new niches.

Too many passages leave the reader wondering if they haven't heard this cleverness before -- if not in Barry's columns, then Hiaasen's books, or Leonard's. Veteran Barry readers can check off his standards as they go along.

Dogs are dumb and concerned primarily with food; teen-agers listen to the darndest music; allowing drunken wanna-be security guards to own and operate high-caliber weapons is not, strictly speaking, in the public interest.

Fine, Dave. We thought that stuff was funny the first 10 times you wrote it. It's still rather funny, but when we buy your book we want more.

That said, listening to Dave Barry describing Miami's denizens, history and human currents is still more engaging than 90 percent of what passes for fun fiction these days.

Even on autopilot, Barry can sail circles around most of the competition.

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