Monday, May 07, 2007

Just Read: Boomsday by Christopher Buckley

Christopher Buckley is his generation's Evelyn Waugh: part of the power establishment and yet able to look at it with a ferociously jaundiced eye, stabbing it not only where it needs to be stabbed, but in the most telling and painful spots. Thank You For Smoking is still the quintessential modern political satire, and several of his other books -- The White House Mess, No Way To Treat a First Lady, and Little Green Men -- are nearly as good. (Though I do have to admit that Buckley's immediately previous novel, Florence of Arabia, suffered a bit from over-earnestness and ending trouble.)

So I was expecting a lot when I started reading Boomsday, and I generally got it -- at least at first.

Boomsday starts strong, and, but for two problems, would rank with Buckley's best. (I'll praise it first, and then get back to those two problems). Buckley either knows exactly how people with power act and think (with slight allowances for comedic exaggeration), or can fake it so well that it makes no difference. I find his dialogue and narration very funny, though I've seen that some exceptionally humorless left-wing types (particularly those who cannot countenance the idea that democratic government is inevitably a snake-pit of bureaucratic infighting and factionalism) don't find him funny at all. I prefer to think of this as a litmus test of readers, rather than saying anything about Buckley.

In common with most of Buckley's novels, this could be characterized as science fiction -- it's sent in the very near future -- but generally isn't. (Since I like Buckley's work, and am officially a SF editor, I tend to be expansive in this case.) In Boomsday, we start off in late 2011, as the next Presidential election campaign is getting underway, and the economy is heading rapidly downhill, in large part because the Baby Boom generation is about to start retiring. One young woman takes exception to the ever-increasing taxes being put on her generation to fund the government trough for the previous generations, and starts something of a tax revolt, which then gets even weirder.

The characterizations are generally good (with one caveat, below), the plot moves along well into interesting thickets of complication, and it's very funny, and very true, a lot of the time. OK, enough praise.

The first problem: Buckley has intermittent trouble writing a believable young woman, which is a problem, since our central figure, Cassandra, is a young woman, and that's very important to her character. In particular, her sex life only suddenly appears when necessary for the plot -- she's otherwise both utterly gorgeous and utterly virginal, like a middle-aged man's own conception of his daughter -- and then is discreetly kept off-screen, when it should provide Buckley great opportunities for both comedy and character work. She also has no contacts with people her own age at any point during the book; her best friend and only confidante is her Boomer-aged boss. She's believable as a person, and a pleasure to read about, but she really doesn't feel like a 29-year-old woman.

The second issue: Boomsday is in two parts, more or less: the first 300 pages is essentially the beginning three-quarters of a great 400-page novel, and the last eighteen pages is fun but very messy, in which everything stops in a great hurry, as if to meet a word count or a deadline. Buckley abandons entirely several plot threads in his haste to end the book, and the ending doesn't have much impact. Maybe the point was supposed to be that things always will go on as usual, but it doesn't come across that way: it feels as if a longer book was truncated for some reason.

It's still well worth reading, but I think I'd recommend anyone who hasn't read Buckley yet to start with Thank You For Smoking or Little Green Men.

1 comment:

Nadine said...

I think that this had to do with some of the problems with Florence of Arabia as well-I just don't find Buckley's female characters as well-drawn or as believable. This is less of a problem in say,The White House Mess,since everything is filtered through a male viewpoint anyway so it isn't as noticeable,but here,as in Florence,he just has real trouble writing them well and consistently. I think this was also some of the trouble with Wet Work-I just found a lot of the granddaughter's behavior as described,to be not very realistic.

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