I personally believe that Christopher Buckley is about the best thing to happen to the human race since the invention of the wheel. I read his blistering, hilarious No Way to Treat a First Lady six years ago and became a full-on convert to the worship of his wit and brilliance. (For the record, I think NWtTaFL is superior to Thank You for Smoking, the one reviewers always hold up as his seminal contribution. Though the latter is pretty great as well.) So my hopes were high for his latest satirical novel, They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, which tackles US-Chinese relations and opens, promisingly, on a Senate committee hearing full of pompous, pontificating policymakers “droning about drones.” Defense lobbyist Walter “Bird” McIntyre and his boss, the CEO of aerospace weapons manufacturer Groepping-Sprunt, have lost their battle to get funding for their pet project—a drone named DUMBO—approved. “On top of the ‘funding factor’ (Washington-speak for ‘appalling cost overruns,’ Bird and Groepping-Sprunt were up against a bit of a ‘perception problem’ (Washington-speak for ‘reality.’)” So with the ultimate goal of shoring up the defense giant’s bottom line and tacitly promoting its new, top-secret project that “has something to do with China,” Bird sets up a phony foundation called “Pan-Pacific Solutions” and teams up with a blonde Ann-Coulter-esque think-tanker named Angel Templeton to gin up anti-Chinese sentiment and convince America that having preemptive weapons systems in place to take on the authoritarian powerhouse is a good idea. (Angel is the CEO of, in yet another touch of nomenclatural brilliance, the Institute for Continuing Conflict, or ICC.) The plan is to somehow make it look like the Chinese government poisoned the Dalai Lama and, as you can imagine, hijinks ensue.
Since I loved almost every minute of the novel, I’m going to respond to, and rebuke, some of the criticisms of real reviewers. The New York Times‘s Janet Maslin mentions cognitive dissonance—Buckley has written a satire, and yet China is a pretty odd subject for one, since it remains “one of the least funny places on earth.” Sure, but black humor has always been a mainstay of Buckley’s novels (for example, in Boomsday the plot centers around a twenty-something’s policy proposal to urge Social Security-eligible Baby Boomers to commit suicide, thereby easing the burden on the younger generation), and I didn’t find any of the grimmer plot points gratuitous. Nor did I pick up on Buckley’s indulgence in what Maslin calls “totalitarian stereotypes”; Buckley’s portrayal of key Chinese leaders could perhaps credibly be called a bit artificial, but he’s also writing this book for an American audience and is more interested in underscoring our basic (mis)conceptions of the Chinese high command, Borat-style, than he is with utmost verisimilitude. (For instance, Buckley has President Fa Mengyao and his ministers attempting to publicly one-up each other with relevant Sun Tzu quotations.) This is a satire, after all.
In the Washington Post, Jess Walter charges that TEPDT? “begins to lag as it drifts further from Bird, bouncing from Beijing to Washington, from meeting to television chat-fest to one-sided phone conversation.” But I imagine that had Buckley hewn more closely to his central couple (I don’t think it’s giving away too much to reveal that the sexual tension between Bird and Angel reaches a head), he would have been accused of playing small ball, afraid to confront the comic possibilities of authoritarian apparatchiks who take their strategic leads from figures like, say, Sun Tzu. During a recent interview on the Daily Beast‘s Beast TV, Buckley mentions that Norman Mailer once said he didn’t like to plot his novels too heavily so as not to deprive his characters of free will. And this gets to the core of Buckley’s style: He lets his books resemble life. His characters certainly aren’t heroes, his books don’t end neatly or happily, and what may seem at first like one-joke situations become increasingly complex as circumstances change and new characters enter the fray. Like the strategy or not, this certainly isn’t the first time Buckley’s employed it, and it seems rather late in the game (of his career) to quibble with the fact that the Master Hand isn’t visible enough. It’s not meant to be. And I found the injection of new, semi-peripheral characters (most notably Winnie Chang, the director of the “US-China Co-Dependency Council,” who frequently spars with Angel on “Hardball”) and the setting jumps to Beijing to be nothing but refreshing.
Admittedly, some parts of the book are funnier than others. Buckley earns top points for Bird’s attempt to trick a New York Times reporter who’s been sniffing around his “foundation” by setting up an office and staffing it with his brother’s friends, a troupe of Civil War re-enactors. But a lot of what centers around Bird’s predictably spoiled wife and her dreams of representing the US in an equestrian competition called the Tang Cup—held, of course, in China—falls flat. Being able to point out the highs and lows of his comic abilities, however, shouldn’t obscure the fact that Buckley at his worst could still go head-to-head with other political satirists at their best.
Finally, in the Wall Street Journal, Michael Moynihan points out why the book feels so “dated,” to use Maslin’s word: “[Buckley] chose a Bush-era cast, complete with powerful neocons, a Cindy Sheehan-like antiwar protester and a naval warship named the Donald Rumsfeld steaming aggressively toward Taiwan. With the news dominated these days by Chinese human-rights violations and the Obama administration’s vacillating responses to them, They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? feels both prescient and a step behind the political times.” (Brief aside: On the Sunday political talk show show “Boring In,” Angel refers to the aforementioned Cindy Sheehan stand-in as a “headline-hungry harridan.” One of the many, many times I laughed out loud.) So why didn’t Buckley populate his newest novel with Obama-ites? Probably for the same reason late-night comics secretly dreaded the incoming administration in 2009: Because it’s not as funny. (Also, if Mitt Romney’s elected president in six months, the book may prove more prescient than dated.) But Buckley’s other point seems to be that, for all appearances, the US—and Washington in particular—hasn’t changed as much as we’d like to think. I’m sure his choice to open the novel with a drone debate wasn’t accidental, given that, in the words of the inimitable Matt Taibbi, “Obama is doing things with extralegal drone strikes that would have liberals marching in the streets if they’d been done by Bush.”
In essence, I think reviewers have underestimated Buckley. This is a hilarious, deftly written novel that’s even smarter and wryer than it appears. Just read it.
Also see: Alida Becker’s piece in the New York Times‘s Sunday Book Review.