Christopher Buckley is a very funny man. I know this not just because I’ve read his books, which generally “kept me in stitches” (whatever that means), but also because I actually spent much of an evening with him not long ago. He’d come to Berkeley to do a “reading” from his then-newest book, They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, and somehow I’d been invited to introduce him to the audience of about 150 people who were there to hear him. I managed to coax out two or maybe three laughs during my introduction and the questions I later posed. He elicited—oh, maybe 600. Because this was no “reading.” Like the consummate pro he is, he didn’t actually read from the book. He simply talked extemporaneously and, later, answered questions from the audience. The man is an accomplished stand-up comedian.
No doubt Buckley spent the first half of his life in the shadow of his famous father, William F. Buckley, Jr. Bill Buckley founded the conservative National Review in 1955 and became the avatar of conservative politics through the magazine, hosting the popular weekly television show Firing Line, and writing several dozen books. His son followed him into journalism (as editor of Esquire in his twenties) and then politics. He wrote his first novel, The White House Mess, based on his experience as a speechwriter for then-Vice President George H. W. Bush. Buckley made news in 2008 when he broke from the Republican Party and the conservative movement to endorse Barack Obama for President. His twelfth satirical novel, Make Russia Great Again, was published in 2020.
The White House Mess (1986) – Here’s proof that Republicans can tell funny stories
Buckley’s first novel masquerades as a White House memoir — a send-up of life inside the White House that focuses on the travails of the First Family and on the high stakes feuds among their staff. The plot revolves around an old-fashioned Marxist-Leninist coup in Bermuda, the First Son’s missing hamster, a young First Lady who aches to become a Hollywood star again, a parody of a weak-kneed and wholly unsuited Democratic President, and a collection of snobs, misfits, and alcoholics who, somehow, manage to hold down jobs in the White House. Oh, and by the way: the title refers to the dining facilities, which are called the “mess” because they’re run by the Navy.
Wet Work (1991)
In Wet Work, Buckley displays considerable knowledge of fine art and artists. He writes in great detail about weapons and other military matters, the business of cocaine production, and the nature of bureaucratic maneuvering at the highest level in the United States government. In some ways, the novel is satirical. But Wet Work is, nonetheless, a grim and unsettling story.
Thank You for Smoking (1994)
I read this hilarious novel long before I began reviewing books on this site. Publishers Weekly began its contemporary review of the book with these words: “Nick Naylor had been called most things since becoming chief spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, but until now no one had actually compared him to Satan.” So begins the adventures of this protagonist, a shamelessly slimy yuppie and PR flack par excellence for the tobacco industry. The story, such as it is, consists of “Naylor’s attempts to prop up his failing corporate star by expanding his defense of the evil weed.” Writing in the New York Times, Christopher Lehman-Haupt termed the novel a “savagely funny new satirical farce.” Kirkus Reviews seems to have laughed less, noting that Buckley “displays an undiminished appetite for current affairs and a talent for converting some of America’s thornier social issues into light comedy.”
God Is My Broker: A Monk-Tycoon Reveals the 7-1/2 Laws of Spiritual and Financial Growth, coauthored with John Tierney (1998) – Self-help gurus get their comeuppance from Christopher Buckley
If you’re a devotee of Deepak Chopra, Tony Robbins, Stephen Covey, Dale Carnegie, or one of the many other high-profile self-help gurus who have streaked across the American firmament over the past century, you may not laugh at this book. But who knows? Since Buckley (born a Catholic) takes on the Catholic Church with equal verve, you might enjoy it, anyway. In God Is My Broker, a certain Brother Ty has chucked a career on Wall Street — a singularly unsuccessful one, if the truth be told — and become a monk in an upstate New York monastery called Cana dedicated to the teachings of a masochistic saint. Unfortunately, Cana is on the ropes. Its source of revenue — sales of a uniquely awful wine called Cana Nouveau — has, shall we say, dried up. To reverse the monastery’s desperate financial troubles, Brother Ty decides to let God be his broker, looking for buy and sell signs in his breviary in combination with current business rumors.
Little Green Men (1999) – Wondered where UFOs come from? Christopher Buckley has the answer
Perhaps it requires a rarefied sense of humor to appreciate Christopher Buckley, but you wouldn’t know it from the sales figures on his books. Anyone who can write a book with endlessly eccentric characters named Sir Reginald Pigg-Vigorish, Col. Roscoe J. Murfletit, General Tunklebunker, and Deputy FBI Director Bargenberfer may be reaching the pre-adolescent in me, but he makes me laugh, dammit, and I’m not going to apologize for it, so there! In Little Green Men, not only does Buckley make me chuckle and wheeze with immoderate glee, but he also solves the mystery of the UFOs! Could anyone possibly wish for more?
No Way to Treat a First Lady (2002) – Philandering President, long-suffering wife
Whenever as a child I told my mother that something was funny, she would ask, “Funny ha-ha, or funny strange?” Well, this one is a little of both. No Way to Treat a First Lady tells the tale of a philandering President and a long-suffering wife who has, apparently, murdered him in his sleep. See what I mean? However, the leading characters in this novel in no way resemble two recent residents of the White House. And the supporting cast would be a better fit in a Marx Brothers film than in today’s Washington, DC — or at least that was true before 2017. Nowadays, you can practically see them behind today’s headlines.
Florence of Arabia (2004) – Feminism? In Arabia? Read it here first
The issue the novel addresses — the brutal subjugation of women in ultra-conservative Muslim societies — is simply not funny. However preposterous the characters or improbable the circumstances, the subject just isn’t laughable at all. In other ways, however, Florence of Arabia shows off Buckley’s exceptional talent: deliciously convoluted (if not Byzantine) plotting, overblown characters that somehow still seem true to life, and thorough grounding in the facts on the ground to make the story seem dangerously close to reality.
Boomsday is another of Buckley’s books that I read before launching this blog. Here, then, is how Wikipedia sums up the plot: Cassandra Devine, “a morally superior twenty-nine-year-old PR chick” and moonlit angry blogger, incites generational warfare when she proposes that the financially nonviable Baby Boomers be given incentives (free Botox, no estate tax) to kill themselves at 70. The proposal, meant only as a catalyst for debate on the issue, catches the approval of millions of citizens, chief among them an ambitious presidential candidate, Senator Randolph Jepperson. With the aide of public relations guru Terry Tucker, Devine and Jepperson attempt to ride “Voluntary Transitioning” all the way to the White House, over the objections of the Religious Right and the Baby Boomers, deeply offended by the demonstrations taking place on the golf courses of their retirement resorts.
Supreme Courtship (2008) – Christopher Buckley’s satire on the U.S. Supreme Court
The President of the United States, Donald P. Vanderdamp, has an approval rating barely above twenty. Congress, and politicians of both parties, despise him, because he has vetoed every spending bill that reached his desk. In retaliation, the Senate has rejected the two eminently qualified jurists he nominated for an open seat on the Supreme Court. All he wants to do is move back home to Wapakoneta, Ohio, where he can go bowling as often as he wishes. His term is almost up. About all that remains is to find someone who can gain the approval of the Senate for that Supreme Court slot. Enter Judge Perdita “Pepper” Cartwright, star of the top-rated reality TV show, Courtroom Six.
They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? (2012) – Washington and Beijing get what they deserve in this satirical novel
Your name is Walter “Bird” McIntyre. You are the leading Washington lobbyist for Groepping-Sprunt, a major arms contractor for the Pentagon. A Senate committee is meeting to consider a huge appropriation for your latest weapons system — an ocean-liner-sized drone aircraft armed with every manner of destructive weaponry known to the military-industrial complex. Testifying on the company’s behalf will not be easy. “On top of the ‘funding factor’ (Washington-speak for ‘appalling cost overruns’), Bird and Groepping-Sprunt are up against a bit of a ‘perception problem’ (Washington-speak for ‘reality’).” After embarrassing you with hours of pointed questions, does the committee approve the appropriation? No, it does not. And that, for all intents and purposes, is where this tale begins.
The Relic Master (2015) – An irreligious take on Catholic history
This diabolical tale is a send-up of the Catholic Church at what was probably the most unattractive period in its history. The dissolute scion of a notorious family, Lorenzo de’ Medici, held forth in the Holy See as Pope Leo X, pursuing carnal pleasures and bankrupting the Vatican as a patron of the arts. He was perhaps the most corrupt and immoral in a long line of unspeakably awful Popes. In Wittenberg, in reaction to the excesses of Leo’s Church, the Augustinian monk Martin Luther began his campaign for reform. So went Catholic history. In The Relic Master, Christopher Buckley spins a tale built around the historical figures who played key roles in the early days of the Reformation: not just Leo and Luther themselves, but also Johann Tetzel, the Dominican friar commissioned by the Pope to raise money for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica; Tetzel’s greedy bishop, Cardinal Albrecht of Mainz; and Elector Frederick “the Wise” of Saxony. The brilliant German painter, Albrecht Durer, plays a major part in the story, too. The book is very, very funny.
The Judge Hunter (2018) – A picaresque adventure in Colonial New England and New Amsterdam
The judge hunter is Balthasar de St. Michel, the Huguenot son of a French father and an English mother. (“The word feckless might have been coined to describe Balty.”) English King Charles II’s spymaster, Sir George Downing, dispatches Balty to Boston in 1664. There he finds himself caught up in a series of mishaps and misadventures involving a long string of characters well known to history. Among them are John Winthrop the Younger, Governor of Connecticut Colony; the Reverend John Davenport (cofounder of the Colony of New Haven); and Governor Peter Stuyvesant of New Amsterdam. Balty’s mission takes him to New Amsterdam, where he plays a role in the bloodless seizure of the Dutch colony by the English Navy.
Make Russia Great Again—Satirizing Donald Trump is a tall order
Christopher Buckley is far and away the most accomplished political satirist writing today in America. In novels such as Thank You for Smoking and They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, he has skewered the nation’s political establishment six ways from Sunday. Now, for the first time in nearly a decade, he returns to that field of battle with another of his trademark sendups of none other than Donald Trump himself. In Make Russia Great Again, he has taken on a man who might be thought immune to satire because he does such a great job of making a fool of himself. The book may not be Buckley’s best effort, but it’s far better than anything else in print that finds humor in The Donald’s tragic misbehavior. It turns out that parodying Donald Trump requires a satirist of Buckley’s enormous talent.
Have I convinced you that Christopher Buckley writes satirical novels that are very, very funny? If not, check out a few of them. You’ll see for yourself.
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