Tag Archives: Christopher Buckley

Wry Martinis, Christopher Buckley

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.

Thank You For Smoking, Christopher Buckley

Harper Perennial, 1994, 272 pages, C$16.95 tpb, ISBN 0-06-097662-4

After discovering the silliness of Christopher Buckley in Little Green Men, it didn’t take me a long time to bring back home other examples of his work. Alas, as if often the case when picking up authors in mid-career, going back to earlier works can be disappointing, as we regress to a more unpolished style and less-controlled plotting. No, I didn’t go nuts for Thank You For Smoking nearly as much as Little Green Men. But don’t let that stop you from reading the book.

Christopher Buckley, novelist, is really a social satirist. Before tackling the world of UFO conspiracies in Little Green Men, his Thank You For Smoking took careful aim at the special-interest community. Our protagonist and narrator, Nick Taylor, is a spokesman for the tobacco industry. The job has its small annoyances (like being likened to Nazis and various creatures of the underworld) but it pays the bills, represents a constant challenge and allows Nick to travel around the country and attend public events where participants hiss at him. It’s, all things considered, a good life. That is, until Nick starts making too many waves and someone, somewhere wants him dead through an ironic execution.

Suddenly, Nick doesn’t know who to trust. Even as he’s enjoying his highest media profile in years, even as the leaders of Big Tobacco start noticing his efforts, even as he sleeps with just about every available female character, his enemies start to accumulate. Are they anti-smokers or pro-smokers with twisted motives? What about Nick’s colleagues in the special-interest community? Are those NRA spokespersons jealous of Nick’s sudden celebrity? Unless… what if the Tumbleweed Man, ex-industry icon now living off oxygen bottles, has decided to take his final revenge?

General points of comparison with Little Green Men abound. Both novels revolve around Washington, as Buckley demonstrates his inside knowledge of how the machinery of influence really works. Both novels feature a protagonist who comes to reconsider everything he believes in, even if it results in him losing everything he holds dear. Both novels do believable jobs of creating their own brand of reality slight off-kilter from our own, while remaining credible. Both can be read in a flash.

The main difference is that Thank You For Smoking is somewhat less funny than Little Green Men. The latter novel had the good sense to go for the jugular and be hysterically silly when it needed to be. No so here, as things are carefully kept from going over the edge of reality. It’s off-beat but not zany. Whereas Little Green Men was funny, Thank You For Smoking is merely amusing.

Not that there’s anything wrong with being merely amusing. In fact, some readers are more likely to prefer a novel that stays within the bounds of a certain recognizable reality. It’s not as if I disliked Thank You For Smoking (well, aside from the impression that the narrator was a slut for sleeping with every female he could lay his hands on) as much as I thought it was a let-down from Buckley’s later novel.

Certainly, Thank You For Smoking is well-worth reading for light entertainment. (The progressive transformation of the protagonist in someone we can cheer for is remarkable in itself.) There’s plenty of satiric content for anyone even remotely familiar with special-interest groups, and even if the ending isn’t completely successful (what is with chapter 29, anyway?), it’s not as if the rest of the novel isn’t pure fun. As for me, well, I’m not done with Buckley’s other novels yet.

Little Green Men, Christopher Buckley

Random House, 1999, 300 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-679-45293-1

I remember showing the bright-yellow jacket of this book to a colleague, who then asked the obvious question: “Are there any Little Green Men in it?” My first answer was “Well, with a title like this…”, but as it turns out, my colleague’s question was absolutely appropriate. Little Green Men is a rarity, a comedic thriller about UFOs that should satisfy both believers and sceptics alike. It also helps that for a humorous story of political intrigue, it’s about as non-partisan as it’s possible to be these days in the United States.

Starring an unlikely protagonist named John Oliver Banion, Little Green Men is the story of a Washington talk-show host who is suddenly abducted by UFO occupants. A man of considerable intellect and reason, Banion has trouble coming to grip with his predicament. That is, until he’s abducted again. After that, he simply decides to become a crusader for all UFOlogists, with predictable results: His talk show is yanked off the air, Majestic-12 gets involved, his family and friends desert him and he becomes the coqueluche of the vast fringe-wing conspiracy. But what he’ll discover will defy both his imagination and yours… and spin wildly out of control as he finds himself with just a little bit too much power.

I should probably avoid any further spoilers, because the pleasure of Little Green Men is how it twists the obvious developments and develops the obvious twists. As a confirmed sceptic regarding this whole UFO business, I approached the novel with guarded expectations, but what I got was considerably more interesting than what I first expected. It’s a remarkably clever little book, exploiting conspiracy hysteria in a fascinating fashion. Buckley Does Not Believe, and this detachment allows him to have a lot of fun with the material. (There are footnotes)

Purists should note, however, that even though this is billed as a novel of political humour, there isn’t much in way of belly-laughs in the book. They’re scattered here and there, but for the most part, Buckley sticks to reasonable just-this-side-of-reality plot developments, avoiding obvious burlesque unless absolutely necessary. But to judge this novel on the number of laugh somehow misses the point, especially when it’s hard to wipe a sustained grin off our face as we read the novel. (Given the considerable sustained appeal of the prose, be prepared to grin from beginning to end.)

Another note worth pondering: While you may get hints of known figures in the quick character sketches, don’t assume that Little Green Men has any link to pre-1999 political figures. In the first few pages, we learn that Saddam Hussein has converted to Catholicism, Robert McNamara was “addicted to mind-altering hair-restorative drugs the whole time he was escalating the war in Vietnam” [P.18], Israel annexed Jordan based on a new translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls and that our protagonist once co-authored a congressional committee report that “stuck a well-balanced tone between righteous indignation and cautious reform, between those who though that the United States had no business trying to poison Canadian prime ministers and those who, while disapproving of this particular instance, felt that the United States ought to reserve the right to dispatch troublesome Canadian PMs in the future, should circumstances warrant.” [P.16] In short, any resemblance between this reality and our is, hopefully, entirely coincidental. This lack of adherence to acknowledged reality is one of the elements making Little Green Men fun reading for conservatives and liberals alike.

The evolution of this protagonist from a righteous bastard to a definitely more sympathetic hero is one of the novel’s chief delights, but hardly the only one. I’d end up recommending Little Green Men to just about everyone. Sagaciously plotted, deliciously-written and executed with more than a twinkle of amusement, it doesn’t need much more to get my recommendation. If you think that X-Files-inspired rants and government conspiracies have evolved in a less-than-amusing direction lately, well, this is the book for you.