With former president Donald Trump and (likely) Gov. Ron DeSantis (R., Fla.) vying for the presidency, the Sunshine State is having a moment. Thankfully, Dave Barry’s new novel, Swamp Story, isn’t about draining the political swamp. Based in the Florida Everglades (which is technically not a swamp), the setting offers a warm respite for those in search of some much-needed levity.
Barry masterfully weaves multiple overlapping plotlines into his text, the first of which involves a young mom named Jesse Braddock. Jesse lives in a cabin in the Everglades with her handsome, if vain and unfaithful, baby daddy Slater and his lecherous, pot-smoking sidekick (and cameraman) Kark. They are there to try and sell a reality show called Glades Man, which would ostensibly feature a mostly shirtless Slater doing manly Everglades stuff such as piloting an airboat or battling gators and Burmese pythons. The only problem is that he’s far from an authentic outdoorsman. Despite his outwardly fit appearance and bulging biceps, his inner character reflects an unchivalrous, physical coward.
Nearby is a colorful local entrepreneur (and part-time drug dealer) named Ken Bortle (perhaps a nod to former Jacksonville quarterback and native Floridian Blake Bortles?). Ken runs a small store called Bortle Brothers Bait & Beer, and he hatches a crazy plan to increase tourist business. Ken wants to produce a fake video showing him spotting a yeti-like creature he calls the Everglades Melon Monster.
To pull off this con, Ken recruits—you guessed it—Slater and Kark. (After all, Slater looks good on video, and Kark has the fancy equipment needed to produce a reality show.)
Much to everyone’s amazement (except Ken’s), the scam works brilliantly—much better than Ken’s previous harebrained promotions (including the "Gator Giveaway," where he threw in a live alligator for every purchase over $25). And it necessitates filming a sequel, which involves old-school Ken and pretty boy Slater trying to figure out how to be filmed running from a "monster" (while heading to Bortle Brothers Bait & Beer, of course) without looking like "pussies."
This is where things go from funny to tense. While everyone’s busy making a phony monster video go viral, Slater’s girlfriend, Jesse (who has been once again ignored by her fame-obsessed boyfriend), takes long walks with her baby to occupy her time. She brings a machete, just in case she needs to fend off gators, but has rarely needed to use it. But on this particular day, she notices a man in the distance who is watching her as she stops to breastfeed. It turns out there are two men.
Jesse gets appropriately spooked by their surveillance and attempts to run away, which leads her off her trail and deeper into the thicket. It is there that she stumbles upon something sticking out of the ground, glinting in the sun. It’s a gold bar—and there are more where that came from.
It wouldn’t be much of a page-turner if the villains chasing her weren’t hot on her trail—and dangerous. The two men, we learn, are a couple of ex-con brothers who had been tipped off by a fellow inmate to the possible location of a buried treasure, which has probably been there since the Civil War. (The brothers hit it off with the lifer because "the three of them had nearly identical neck swastikas.")
These are just two of the desperados looking for the treasure, but make no mistake, these guys are bad hombres.
To stay one step ahead of these outlaws, Jesse is aided by Ken’s brother, Brad Bortle. Brad is a good old boy who wastes most of his time playing Candy Crush and underestimating his brother’s viral video savvy, until he becomes embroiled (ultimately romantically) with the fetching Jesse.
Throughout their courtship (and their narrow escape from the bad guys), Brad tries to summon the courage to tell Jesse how he feels about her. His inner dialogue includes long soliloquies like:
Look, I know you don’t really know me. And I know you’ve heard a million speeches from guys like your pretty-boy lawyer friend who just want to impress you because you’re beautiful. And don’t get me wrong, I think you’re beautiful too, and I want to impress you. But I also like you a lot, and I like Willa [her baby], and I want to help you, and I’d want to help you even if there was absolutely no chance I could ever be your boyfriend or anything, which I’m sure there isn’t. But please just know you can trust me.
Inevitably, he always chickens out and simply says something like, "Well, if you need anything I’m just down the hall." (Note: Every man in America who has ever been head over heels for a beautiful woman knows exactly how this goes, which is why the writing works so well.) Fortunately for Brad, he doesn’t get mired in the "friend zone" for long.
Another subplot involves a washed-up newspaperman (who is paid to actually don the Everglades Melon Monster suit) struggling with alcoholism and trying to reconnect with his daughter after his divorce from her mother. Barry manages to make his story both funny and poignant. The chapters are short and alternate between the various storylines, which keeps the pacing brisk.
For anyone jonesing for a political fix, there is a cameo by an aspiring presidential candidate who gets peed on by a wild boar at The Python Challenge.
Sadly, that wasn’t based on an actual event.
But other story elements are, including the Python Challenge where Floridians compete for a $10,000 grand prize to catch and remove Burmese pythons. In the swamp, sometimes truth is just as strange as fiction.
Swamp Story doesn’t read like some swan song or a perfunctory payday piece written by an aging author. It is relevant, funny, and fresh. Indeed, Barry’s longevity as a writer seems to have only honed his skill.
For decades now, Barry has been entertaining us, and his latest offering is hilarious. This novel is full of weird characters and events that could only exist in the state that spawned the "Florida Man" internet meme.
We should expect nothing less. After all, Barry isn’t just a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times bestselling author. Unlike some of the poseur characters in Swamp Story, Dave Barry is an "actual Florida Man."
Swamp Story: A Novel
by Dave Barry
Simon & Schuster, 320 pp., $27.99
Matt Lewis is a senior columnist for the Daily Beast and the author of the forthcoming book Filthy Rich Politicians