BOOK REVIEW: “Peter and the Starcatchers” by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson (2004)

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I love Dave Barry. I didn’t love this book.

Barry was a humor columnist for the Miami Herald who won a Pulitzer prize in the ‘80s for (As he put it) “Writing about boogers.” He also cranked out some fairly awful books of the sort you could only find in “Spencers Gifts” next to the incense and dirty postcards: “Dave Barry’s Guide to Sex,” and “Claw your waty to the top: How to become the head of a major corporation in about a week” and I’m pretty sure there was a “Fart Book” in there, too. If not, written by him, it had the same artists and publishers. They weren’t great, but I’m here to tell you it’s hard to get paid writing. After he won his Pulitzer, they started cranking out compilations of his columns, which is when I discovered him.

Man, he was funny. “Bad Habits” is still about the funniest collection of random reportage and gibberish I’ve ever read, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. “Greatest Hits” was…ehm…perhaps half as good. Still worth a read, but, y’know, not magical. “Dave Barry Talks Back” was perhaps 50% as good as “Greatest Hits” and about a quarter as good as “Bad Habits.” By the time we get down to “Dave Barry is NOT Making This Up,” it’s about half as good as “Talks Back” and about 1/8th as good as “Bad Habits.” By the time his next book of columns came out, well, I was riding another train by then.

Because, you see, comedy has a halflife. The endlessly brilliant Steve Martin (“The World’s Funniest White Man”) from thirty years ago has, alas, turned into the comedic equivalent of Carbon 14. There’s not much use for the stuff, apart from knowing just how far you’ve fallen.

Barry seemed to realize this, and eventually quit his column (more or less) and went into writing books. He had the chops for it. On such rare occasions as he was serious in the paper, he was a strong writer. His piece about saying goodbye to his dad moved me 25 years ago, and it moves me even more now, having lost so many people in the last year. He jumped to writing some above median novels, and I get around to reading ‘em eventually. I never feel cheated, though he’s no Nabokov. When I heard he (co)wrote a fantasy novel, I was intrigued, but obviously I didn’t get around to reading it until now.

It was co-written with Ridley Pearson, about whom I know nothing. Mr. Pearson, if you’re reading this, I apologize. This is every bit as much your book as it is Mr. Barry’s, and I’m giving you not nearly enough attention. However, since this is an ever-so-slightly negative review, Mr. Barry gets to take the lion’s share of the blame as well as the attention. Sorry.

Anyway:

The book is a prequel to “Peter Pan.” It tells the story of who Peter was, how he came to Neverland, the origins of Captain Hook, and a buncha’ stuff about where Pixie Dust comes from. The Pixie Dust stuff is kind of interesting, the rest of it…meh.

Basically, there are two boats headed for a kingdom far away: a British warship and a civilian ship, traveling separately. The civilian ship has some orphans (Including a kid named Peter) who are going to be sold into slavery. It’s also got the daughter of a guy on the warship. The warship gets attacked by a pirate called “Black Stache” who’s ship is (Occasionally) driven by sails made in the form of a huge bra. Yeah, there’s no real reason for it, it’s not particularly funny, but there it is. There they are, actually. There are several instances of this “Look at me! Now I’m being zany!” stuff. None of it really works. Again: Comedy has a halflife, I guess.

Black (Mu)Stache attacks the ship because it’s got pixie dust on it. This turns out to be a false lead, and in fact the pixie dust is on the other ship (“The Never Land”), so he goes to attack that as well. Peter and the girl and other orphans and a crate full of pixie dust end up on a random island, where the locals worship a giant crocodile and have some issues with colonialism. They attempt to feed everyone to the crock, but the girl teaches Peter to fly with the pixie dust, and there’s some yelling and shouting and chasing about with Stache, and then it sorta’ ends, and everyone lives happily ever after, until the (four and counting) sequels start rolling out. Then end. For a few months.

Understand I’m not *slamming* the book. It’s perfectly acceptable, it’s not offensive, it’s not poorly written, it’s not disrespectful of the original material, it’s not a *bad* book. It is pretty ‘whatevery,’ though. I found myself not really giving a crap about the characters, nor really having much fun with their adventures, even in really well-written fun bits like when Peter is being taught to fly by a dolphin. Even if we factor in my notorious indifference to fantasy, it still didn’t grab me much. I don’t feel cheated by the book, but I don’t feel particularly well served, either. There’s a lack of inspiration here.

Basically it suffers from the same problem as the Star Wars prequels: Why bother? I mean, we already *knew* the important bits of the story from five or six lines of dialog in the original three movies. Did we really need seven and a half hours to expand on that? Furthermore, did we really need all that screen time to be slavishly dedicated to stuff we already knew or suspected, told completely to the exclusion of anything new or interesting? I mean, ok, we get it: Anikin falls. That sucks. Was that really *ALL* that was going on for like 15 years as the republic was falling? Honestly? And that whole Clone Wars thing? Honestly, you have limitless money and time and resources, and that’s the best you could do? Sad.

Likewise, the stuff in this book is stuff that anyone could have come up with if they said “Say, how did he get there?” There are no surprises, it’s all pretty much ‘start the ball rolling, and we already know where it’s going to end up.’ Predictable. Plodding. Uninspired. The story feels constrained by the point where it must end up, and that’s a shame because, despite being a common problem of prequels, it really doesn’t *have* to be that way. Maybe we should talk about that at some point? Maybe. Anyway:

My copy is 451 pages long, and it really doesn’t start to get interesting until about page 199. It doesn’t stay particularly interesting because it’s got places to go and people to meet, and it can’t really dawdle around trying to entertain me. That’s a strike against it. On the plus side, the whole “Pixiedust” thing is more interesting than you’d expect:

It comes from space.

Yeah, it comes from space, it crashes to earth, and it causes things to change. This is inconsistent, and basically Pixiedust is MacGuffinite (“MacGuffinium?”) in that it does whatever the plot requires of it at that moment, and does another thing the next. Still, the idea that it isn’t magical, simply preternatural is interesting. Likewise, the idea that there are two covert groups that have been fighting each other for millenia, trying to secure the stuff for their own purposes is pretty neat. It’s hinted briefly that the stuff is the result of some kind of conflict in space, falling to earth as a kind of unexploded bomb or shrapnel or whatever, but frustratingly this isn’t expanded on. The idea that monsters in legend are the result of pixie dust that didn’t get collected in time, and that most of the stuff falls in the oceans, SERIOUSLY inconveniencing Dolphins is likewise neat, but not particularly well developed.

Of course they knew they had sequels in the works, so there was no particular impetus, I suppose, to really drive these points home in the first book. It’s frustrating, though. We get evidence that there’s a larger universe at play here, but we don’t really get to do more than be told “There’s a larger universe at play here. Now go home!” And as a result, nothing I read here was really interesting enough to make me want to read the rest of the series.

“Ah, but it’s a kid’s book! You’re being too hard on it! And you don’t like fantasy!”

Well, true, I’m not a fantasy buff, but let’s recall that this book actually secretly is Science Fiction, what with the whole “It comes from space” thing, and yet it still didn’t engage me. Also, let’s not forget that I’ve got kids who *DO* like fantasy, which means I have to read a lot of Rick Riordan to ‘em at bedtime. His books - intended for the same audience - are far more engaging and fun, and unlike this “Peter” series, the end is not carved in stone from before the beginning.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?

Well, there’s nothing here to upset us, but there’s really nothing here to make us dance and sing either.

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