Thursday, August 09, 2012

They Eat Puppies, Don't They? by Christopher Buckley

Christopher Buckley is one of the great humorous novelists of his generation -- that would be the Boomers, for anyone keeping score -- though he's only good for a novel every few years; They Eat Puppies, Don't They? is only his ninth novel since The White House Mess in 1986. But, like all great humorists, he has his blind spots -- in particular, Buckley has struggled with writing believable female characters, particularly viewpoint characters. His novels are all about politics, which he sees through a subtly right-wing lens. And, except for his best novel, Thank You for Smoking, he's been hesitant to go for the jugular, the way the writer of satirical novels about the US government should, so his books often land softly rather than stabbing into the ground as they might.

Still, he's both authentically funny and well-grounded in actual Washington power politics: even if he does pull his punches some of the time, he knows where to land them so they still do some damage. His books are usually vaguely timely -- Boomsday was about the looming Boomer retirement wave, and what that will mean for the generation struggling to pay for their benefits, while Supreme Courtship anticipated the hearings over Justice Sotomayor in its own twisted way -- but focused on the big picture rather than specific events [1]. And so They Eat Puppies is his China novel.

Buckley's heroes tend to be thinly drawn nice guys in nasty jobs, and They Eat Puppies's "Bird" McIntyre is another in that line: he's a lobbyist for a defense contractor (shades of Thank You), but the plot of the book follows him setting up a shell foundation (shades of Super PACs) to influence Congress and public opinion in a way which will benefit the big contractor that has supposedly just removed itself from his services. Bird's new foundation is primarily devoted to ginning up outrage about China -- for reasons Bird himself doesn't know -- and so he gets caught up in the web of They Eat Puppies's other main character, Angel Templeton. Angel is a fever dream version of Ann Coulter, as powerful and connected as Democrats fear she is and as sexually and personally compelling as Republicans are sure she is, running her own organization which Buckley pretty much bluntly says wants to start any war it possibly can, anywhere. (Buckley is some variety of conservative, but it's clear he's no Boltonesque neocon.)

Bird and Angel luck into a health scare of the Dalai Lama -- everyone loves inoffensive aged spiritual figures -- and work that up into a full-fledged media attack on China, starting with a vaguely plausible rumor that the Chinese are trying to assassinate the Lama and working up from there. Wacky hijinks ensue, as they must -- Bird is supposedly a master of spin, though he spends the entire book off-balance, either because of Angel or because of his high-maintenance horsey wife Myndi, which unfortunately makes him one of Buckley's more ineffectual heroes. Things happen to Bird, as they usually do in a Buckley novel, but he never drives the plot forward; he's just the guy bobbing to the top of the stream. I'm sorry to say that Bird is also a would-be technothriller novelist, and that Buckley gives us several examples of his deathless prose -- it's as awful as we expect, but not as funny as I think Buckley intended.

Buckley is best when his scenes jump around the world at high speed, when he moves from the Chinese President's insomnia to the travails of the unnamed US President's national security advisor. Even Angel -- who is unrealistic as a real person, but a fabulous creation for a satirical novel -- is more interesting than supposedly relatable sad sack Bird. Buckley could have a really great, utterly cutting novel -- or more than one -- in him, but he needs to let go of heroes to set that novel free: his characters are much more engaging when he's not trying to make us like them, and his worlds work better the more of those self-obsessed workaholic borderline lunatics we run into.

They Eat Puppies has another soft landing -- reminiscent of Little Green Men -- as Bird is battered by the outside world and simultaneously comes to a personal epiphany. That last is a shame; Buckley's worlds are so jaundiced and mean-spirited that being nice in one of them is a major failing -- it would be much better if Bird were to benefit hugely from all of his manipulations and be sucked even deeper into the bleak world of the defense contractor. This is certainly a funny and knowing novel of politics and international strife, entirely entertaining as it goes. But the reader can also see in it the outlines of an even funnier, tougher novel that Buckley could have written, which puts the slightest of dampers on the fun.

[I've previously reviewed Buckley's humorous novel Boomsday, did a quick belated take on his novel Supreme Courtship, and reviewed his memoir Losing Mum and Pup.]

[1] It's telling that not one of Buckley's novels takes place during an election year; they're all about people in office rather than fighting for it.

No comments:

Post a Comment