Saturday, May 26, 2012

Thoughts on Science Fair

Dave Barry is an American treasure.

As a Pulitzer Prize-winning humor columnist, he was cherished for decades and has published numerous books collecting and inspired by his wacky observations, and has for the past decade been working as a novelist, where he's had his greatest success co-writing the Peter & the Starcatchers books with Ridley Pearson.  His original novel, Big Trouble, was adapted into the best Tim Allen movie hardly anyone has seen.  And he knows how to identify strange word coupling That Would Make a Great Name for a Rock Band.

But seriously, he's an American treasure.  Science Fair, also written with Pearson, is a prime example.  Written more like Big Trouble and Tricky Business  than the five existing Starcatcher books, it's a breakdown of what exactly being an American in the past fifty years has really been like, exaggerated as only Barry can accomplish it, so that a more accurate portrait of what the American Dream is currently like can be seen.  There are dozens of cartoons and parodies and fake news broadcasts that attempt to do what Barry has done, but none of them are as comprehensive and piercing, and the only reason why this fact is not recognized is that he's so irreverent that it seems like he's just messing around.  I'd argue that he isn't, and Science Fair may be the best example of that.

The heart of this story is a group of middle schoolers who get sucked into the annual hysteria for their class's science fair, which has happened because of an Internet billionaire's cash reward to the winner, which has increased every year.  The results have been appropriately absconded by a bunch of spoiled brats whose parents do most of the work, and the local mall science shop's proprietor does the rest.  The underdogs are the average student, who don't want to see it happen again, and have an alarming reason this year, because the projects being concocted by this unholy alliance have been manipulated into an impending act of terrorism.

Yes, a middle school science fair becomes the grounds for terrorism.

Pearson is mostly here for structural support, unlike the Starcatcher books, which exhibit a much tighter collaboration between the two writers.  Most of the time it's classic Dave Barry.  The best element of the story is the weird foreign nation responsible for the terrorist and his luckless countrymen who are fond of a cheese called "smerk."  This is where the reader truly gets a sense of what Barry is capable of, parodying not just America but the world in general, the kind of country, or the perception of the kind of country, that produces terrorists, so thoroughly backwater even Scott Adams and his mud-covered foreigners would be ashamed.  Yet Barry's accurate vision is that even in this context, there is the chance that even one individual with a plan can make everything that seems to work against them turn around, with the right combination of elements, which just so happen to exist in America.

Written years before Occupy Wall Street, Science Fair illustrates how dangerous privilege and apathy can really be, so that parents who think they have everything, and that their kids must in turn have everything without really working for or earning it can be a deadly combination, and so very easily manipulated.  In fact, the story might also, in its way, explain the recession the country slipped into at the very moment of publication.  Have we learned anything?

But I'm not trying to preach, and neither is Barry, at least not any more than he ever did, or what Mark Twain did in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  He's simply observing what he's always observed, and writing about it in a story, in much the way Big Trouble did years earlier.  Science Fair reads like a bad Hollywood family film sometimes, but that's also part of the act, because bad Hollywood family films also expose all the cliches we have around us, the distorted version of reality we help exist by allowing Disney to remain dominant in the entertainment industry.  In this book, instead of Disney we get Star Wars, another treasured cultural institution that gets relentlessly lampooned.  It's funny, because like the Starcatcher books, Science Fair is actually published by Disney.  Disney has obviously never actually read Dave Barry.  In Dave Barry's world, this makes perfect sense.

If you've ever been curious about Dave, you can probably start here.  It's a thrilling adventure, first and foremost, but it's also classic Dave Barry, and a horribly appropriate mirror to today's America, levitating frogs and wiener wagons and all.  Things happen and exist that are improbable, but that's what we all continue to believe is possible, even though there are so many reasons to be cynical.  Reading Dave Barry is like believing there's enough sanity in the world to accept the lunacy and roll with it.

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