BIG TROUBLE

By Dave Barry

Putnam. 320 pp. $23.95

On the evidence of Big Trouble, the serious American novelists of Dave Barry's generation -- name three and you can go to the head of the class -- have nothing to fear from him. As he admits in the "Acknowledgements and Warning" with which the book opens, he "started writing this book and discovered that I had no idea what the plot was," a problem he solved by drumming up entirely too much plot and then filling it with too many characters who are indistinguishable from too many others. Metaphor, simile, antithesis, irony, mimesis, metonymy, synecdoche, paradox and hyperbole: All these whiz past Barry faster than a Nolan Ryan fastball sails past a Little Leaguer.

Well, okay, maybe not hyperbole. Barry has got his hands on hyperbole. He is in fact our contemporary master of hyperbole; in contrast, the oratory of Jesse Jackson is positively pallid, the other difference being that Barry plays it for laughs. In Big Trouble he gets them aplenty, which is why I will find it impossible, in reviewing this hilariously non-literary -- anti-literary? -- novel, to avoid quoting from it at excessive length.

Big Trouble has to do with . . . (how much time have you got?) It has to do with a bunch of Miami characters, some of whom are also (not always intentionally on the author's part) caricatures, who manage to get themselves into any number of pickles, most of which turn out to be manifestly ridiculous and thus -- because, remember, this is Barry at work -- comical in the extreme. As just about everybody knows, Barry lives in Miami, so it can come as no surprise that the central character in his first venture into fiction is Miami itself, "this insane city," a place where the outrageous is not the exception but the rule. To wit, a company called Penultimate, employer of a "mid-level executive named Arthur Herk," an "abusive alcoholic" and "a fool":

"Penultimate was one of the largest engineering and construction firms in South Florida. It specialized in government contracts, and it made spectacular profits. Penultimate's formula for success was simple: aggressive management, strict employee discipline, and a relentless commitment to cheating. The company lied extravagantly about its technical qualifications, submitted absurdly unrealistic lowball bids to get contracts, and tacked on huge add-on charges. Penultimate was able to do these things because it paid excellent bribes to government officials. Penultimate was as good at municipal corruption as it was bad at actually building things. In political circles, it was well known that Penultimate could be absolutely relied upon to do the wrong thing. In South Florida, a reputation like that is priceless."

Penultimate has figured out -- it wasn't hard -- that Arthur Herk, "to pay off a gambling debt, . . . had embezzled $55,000 from Penultimate." Since they "viewed embezzlement as a fairly serious violation, punishable by death," they have "hired two specialized subcontractors, Henry and Leonard," to off Arthur Herk. The problem -- the first of many -- is that at the precise moment they are creeping toward Herk's house in Coconut Grove, "a rich people's neighborhood, with big houses that had walls around them and driveway gates that opened by a motor," a teenager named Matt Arnold is creeping toward the same house carrying his own weapon: a Squirtmaster Model 900, which "looked like a real assault weapon and held a gallon of water"; he is playing Killer, a game that "had been vehemently condemned and strictly banned by . . . school authorities, so it was very popular with the students," and his "victim" is Herk's stepdaughter, Jenny.

Also on the scene are Puggy, an amiable drifter who has taken up temporary residence in a tree in Herk's heavily vegetated yard, and Roger, Herk's dog, "the random result of generations of hasty, unplanned dog sex: Among other characteristics, he had the low-slung body of a beagle, the pointy ears of a German shepherd, the enthusiasm of a Labrador retriever, the stubby tail of a boxer, and the intelligence of celery"; Roger's daily routine consists of standing guard over an immense toad who has invaded his food dish, "barking at the doorbell, licking his private region, and greeting any humans who ventured into the yard, in case they had food."

At this point one hell of a lot happens, but one important thing does not: Arthur Herk does not get himself killed. Instead matters quickly boil down, in the assessment of a rather weary police detective, to "one of those cases where somebody shoots a gun and nobody ever finds out who or why, which is a fairly common type of case in Miami." Soon we learn, though, that a couple of Russian emigres, "John and Leo -- whose real names were Ivan Chukov and Leonid Yudanski" -- are running an arms outlet under cover of the Jolly Jackal, a rundown bar, and are doing a booming business:

"Miami turned out to be a great market: It seemed as if everybody here wanted things that went bang. You had your professional drug-cartel muscle people, who needed guns that shot thousands of rounds per minute to compensate for the fact that their aim was terrible. You had your basic local criminals, who wanted guns that would scare the hell out of civilians; and your civilians, trying to keep up with your local criminals. You had your hunters, who, to judge from the rifles they bought, were after deer that traveled inside armored personnel carriers. You had your `collectors' and your `enthusiasts,' who lived in $3,000 trailers furnished with $7,000 grenade launchers. You had an endless stream of shady characters representing a bewildering variety of revolutionary, counterrevolutionary, counter-counterrevolutionary and counter-counter-counterrevolutionary movements all over the Caribbean and Central and South America, who almost always wanted guns on credit."

So. Others in the cast include a fetching Miami cop named Monica Ramirez and her partner, Walter Kramitz, who is trying to seduce her by "displaying his biceps," rolling up "the already-short sleeves of his uniform shirt so their whole studly bulging masculine vastness was on display"; a couple of cynical, fast-talking FBI agents; a truckload of goats, "destined for sale in Hialeah, for use in ritual sacrifices by practitioners of the Santeria religion"; a "lowlife" known as Snake and his incompetent henchman, Eddie; the crew of Air Impact! Flight 2038; a small nuclear bomb; Miami International Airport's vast panoply of overweight, overzealous security personnel; a PR and advertising man named Eliot Arnold and "the Big Fat Stupid Client From Hell"; and Elizabeth Dole.

All of this reaches its entirely improbable climax far above the Gulf Stream. None of it makes a bit of sense. All of it is absolutely wild, smart and -- yes -- endearing. Who in heaven's name needs "serious American novelists" when Dave Barry is on the job?

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.