Harper Perennial, 1997, 294 pages, C$20.00 tpb, ISBN 0-06-097742-6
April 2005, all told, was a pretty good month for Christopher Buckley: THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, the movie based on his 1994 novel, enjoyed a wide release across North American theatres. It may not have been much of a hit, (Budget: $6.5M. Box-office results: $23M), but the associated sale of the novel must have been a nice little bonus. Buckley, of course, is well-known for being a humorist, a journalist and an editor: Those who may know him only through THANK YOU FOR SMOKING may want to have a look at Wry Martinis, his non-fiction collection, to see what else he’s been writing.
Whimsically illustrated around a Martini theme, Wry Martinis begins with an introduction that purports to describe Buckley’s search for a good collection title, but ends up describing nearly everything in the book before smoothly moving over to the acknowledgements. Subdivided in several sections, Wry Martinis brings together a number of Buckley’s pieces published over twenty years, from the serious to the very, very funny.
The serious pieces may surprise some: Buckley, after all, is best knows for his satirical novels. But there’s a lot of heartfelt material in Wry Martinis, and some of it is bound to trip readers who are expecting a cover-to-cover laugh riot. The serious material ranges from travel writing (“One Way To Do the Amazon”) to straight-up reportage (“I Visit the Nimitz”) to op-ed (“What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?”). Buckley is never deathly serious, of course, but some pieces do mix real-world material with a keen eye for hyperbole. “Driving Through the Apocalypse” manages to make fun of bodyguard training, while “How I went Nine Gs in a F-16” is a hilarious take-off on a day-trip most of us would pay dearly to experience. Other pieces are more somber, even reflective: “Macho is as Macho does” discusses the trappings of a manly attitude with something approaching melancholy, an interesting reflexion on some of the most testosterone-driven material elsewhere in the book.
As a mostly reformed fan of Tom Clancy, I thought that one the highlights of the book was the “Homage to Tom Clancy” section, a series of pieces about the author. It begins innocently enough with “The Ego Has Landed”, a mostly-sympathetic piece on Clancy as a new writer in the wake of the boffo success of The Hunt For Red October, and continues in a similarly affectionate vein with “Tired Gun”, a wickedly funny take-off on Clancy’s usual writing style. But Buckely then unsheathes the knives with “Megabashing Japan”, a hilariously mean review of Clancy’s Debt of Honor that hits all of the book’s sore points. This, in turn, leads to “Fax Fire”, the only piece in the book not authored by Buckley: It’s a fluffy newspaper piece detailing the acrimonious exchange of faxes between Clancy and Buckley that followed the publication of the piece (complete with Clancy’s final apology) Taken together, those pieces illustrate Buckley’s strengths in Wry Martinis: a willingness to tip over sacred cows, a ferocious sense of observation and a sense of wit that cuts to the essential.
As with most humour columnists, the shorter pieces take on a free-form quality that can go from fake new reports to bestseller list parodies. Fans of Buckley’s Thank You For Smoking will enjoy “How I Learned to (Almost) Love the Sin Lobbyists”, a description of the research Buckley undertook to write the book, up to and including portraits of the real-life lobbyists Buckley interviewed for background material. Finally, a number of portraits betray Buckley’s more serious writing, from memories of his mother (“Mom, Fashion Icon”) to a profile of the woman behind “Ann Landers”.
If there’s an problem with the collection, it’s that it remains a prisoner of the context in which its individual components were written. Topical humour seldom remains relevant for longer than the current issue of the publication in which it appears, and so younger readers may need a refresher on two decade’s worth of cultural icons before making sense of some material in here. (I recommend a healthy usage of Wikipedia for the Reagan years.)
But all in all, there is a lot to sip in Wry Martinis for both Buckley fans and newcomers. While the inclusion of more serious articles can be surprising to those who know the author solely for his humour pieces, it’s a testimony of Buckley’s writing that the serious pieces can be just as fascinating as the more overly humorous texts.