Christopher Buckley is one of the five funniest living fiction writers, and if you want to laugh, especially if you find much of life and politics so absurd as to be hilarious, you need to read his books. The fact that Buckley is the son of conservative writer William Buckley — at least to me — makes his writing even more amusing. Like father, like son? Well, both Buckleys write for magazines. But I don’t think William Buckley would ever write books as madcap as these.
Christopher Buckley first gained mainstream attention, including my own, with his brilliantly witty Thank You for Smoking. The book reminds me of one of my favorite movies, Dr. Strangelove, in the way it demonstrates the humor in a subject — tobacco and its medical impacts — not usually seen as amusing. But that’s exactly why the book is so incredibly sharp.
Here, let’s try a test: Imagine the hardest public relations job in the world. When I think of this I came up with one idea, someone who would speak in favor of global warming, and I just wrote a semi-fictional pitch with that premise to Buckley for a future book. But even that idea is not as funny as the premise for Thank You for Smoking: Nick Naylor is in charge of marketing and public relations for the tobacco lobby.
He is the guy who appears on shows like Larry King Live knowing that when Larry throws him a softball question he can spin and lie and tell the world that tobacco’s health impacts have been vastly exaggerated. He does some of the best spinning imaginable, it’s just that his spinning defends products that kill.
The book has one of the best first lines I've read in years: "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."
You know how some mystery writers, including Donald Westlake and Lawrence Block, create anti-heros for some of their books, often killers? Well, Buckley created the ultimate anti-hero, someone who does not kill directly but is more of an accessory to mass murder. But then, after a series of plot twists, the reader is put in the unusual position of feeling empathy, if not sympathy, for Naylor. He is kidnapped and his body is covered with tobacco patches. Suddenly he must deal with the real effects of his products. To say what happens after that is to reveal too much, so I won’t.
While I loved Thank You For Smoking it wasn’t until I encountered his new book, Boomsday, that I was convinced Smoking was not just a one-time hit. Buckley has done it again. Boomsday is what convinced me that Buckley is one of the five funniest living fiction writers.
The five are: Buckley, Donald Westlake, Lisa Lutz, Frank Portman, and – sometimes – Carl Hiaasen. I’ve now interviewed three of the five. While Buckley’s publicist turned down my request for an interview she added that he had also turned down Bill Maher. That seemed like a back-handed compliment to me, as I’m no fan of Maher. I think Maher is predictable and unfunny. By contrast, Buckley is as unpredictable and funny a writer I’ve read since Lisa Lutz’s book The Spellman Files.
As in Smoking, Buckley takes an interesting concept — a Gen X blogger who wants to do something to prevent Boomsday, the so-called date when Social Security funds will run out due to baby boomers living longer — and then takes the idea to the extreme.
Boomday’s protagonist is Cassandra, who works for a public relations campaign that helps groups tremendously in need of a better image, the fur industry, for example. But that is just her day job – at night, fueled by Red Bull, she blogs about Social Security. One day, thoroughly disgusted by a new vote on Social Security, she urges readers to take action by going to the gated communities of retired boomers who are no longer contributing to the economy in a real way and fight back.
She wakes the next morning to hear of news reports of people throwing Molotov cocktails on golf courses and other acts of vandalism. FBI agents visit her and she ignores the advice of a high-priced lawyer and admits that, yes, she was indeed literally asking for such acts to occur. Soon Cassandra becomes a political prisoner and a media darling, with appearances everywhere, again contrary to her lawyer's advice.
It is amid all of this that she develops her "Boomsday" scenario: Providing financial incentives to boomers to commit suicide, which she terms “transitioning.” If enough boomers “transition” out of existence then the Social Security system can be saved.
While developed as what she calls a “meta” issue, one she figures would be rejected out of hand but that could at least get people talking about realistic possible solutions to the Social Security problems, she and the reader are soon shocked to find some supporting the concept. And the number of supporters grows throughout the book.
Mayhem ensues and Buckley milks all the rich material, from a right-wing evangelist who makes public attacks on Cassandra’s ideas to boomer lobby groups working to change the language of her concept, especially after it is introduced as proposed legislation. While some predictable twists and characters emerge, those are outweighed by surprising developments and hilarious dialogue.
My favorite chapters come near the end so I need to be careful how to describe them without spoiling anything. Suffice it to say that the concept of a U.S. Presidential candidate, during a televised presidential debate, telling a sitting president who is full of himself to “shut the f— up”and the resulting political chaos, let alone the media struggling with how to report the situation, had me laughing hard. How hard? So hard that I returned to those two chapters every day for a week and it never failed to make me smile, which may have more to do with my former journalism career and my life as a news junkie.
Still, I suspect it would be equally hilarious for other readers who would be shocked and appalled to hear a presidential candidate drop the f-bomb, even if it was done intentionally to cater to Gen X voters.
If you have not yet read Thank You For Smoking and Boomsday, I suggest you do so immediately. If you have then I suggest you follow my lead and check out his other, less well-known, books, including Little Green Men, No Way To Treat A First Lady, and The White House Mess.
A final note: I listened to Boomsday as an audiobook. While I’ve struggled with the question of whether reading books by listening to them is inferior to actually reading them, and even recently polled some authors I’ve interviewed on that topic, this book is a good example of why sometimes the audiobook may be preferable. As with Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation and the Daily Show’s America: The Book, the voice or voices chosen makes the book even better. Boomsday is read by Janeane Garofalo, a woman every bit as biting and pushy as Cassandra. She does an excellent job reading the book and I think I enjoyed the book more than I would have had I just read it in its traditional print form without the advantage of good acting and narrating.
I give the book a nine out of ten.