336pp, paperback, £11.99
Reviewed by Paul Sidey
William F Buckley Jr. is a hard act for any son to follow. Buckley père (or ‘Pup’ as Christopher called him) was a patrician conservative. He wrote over fifty books, founded and ran the influential National Review and was the popular host of a long-running television programme called ‘The Firing Line’.
Christopher has inherited his father’s sharp and scholarly vocabulary, and has produced fifteen books of his own, including Thank You For Smoking, made into a hit movie, and a bestselling memoir about his parents, both now dead.
Christopher worked as a speechwriter for George H.W. Bush during the Reagan years, and uses all his considerable insider’s knowledge in this new book, whose hero is a successful lobbyist and failed novelist. Walter ‘Bird’ McIntyre is tasked by an aerospace behemoth based in Alabama to put the Red back in Red China. After the Senate Appropriations Committee denies funding for their awesome predator drone, Dumbo, Groepping-Sprunt is desperate to fill a large hole in their forward budget. In cahoots with a sexy cipher/so-called wonkette called Angel Templeton, McIntyre foments a rumour that the Chinese are trying to assassinate a 75-year-old ‘sweetypie’ who wears glasses, saffron robes and eats yak butter – the Dalai Lama.
The main villain here is our old friend, the Military Industrial Complex, eager to secure Congressional approval for a new, improved top-secret weapons system. Continuous conflict is the name of the game.
The trouble with satire, as Christopher Buckley has said in an interview on CBS, is that an author can be in losing competition with current events. There has been recent evidence of wire-tapping in the Chinese Politburo as well as a poisoning scandal, involving a British businessman.
But then They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? also received some free publicity from Barack Obama when he referred to ‘canine dining’ around publication time. The author reckoned this was ‘payback’ from the President after Buckley voted for him in the last election – a liberal act which cost the founder’s son his back page comment column in the National Review.
In the United States, Christopher Buckley has a family calling card that guarantees an audience response. He also writes with wit and a detached charm. His father produced a series of New York Times bestseller-list spy thrillers featuring a CIA agent called Blackford Oakes. But they didn’t ever catch on in the UK.
Some authors simply don’t travel, even with such well-stamped passports. For all their cultural and political awareness, perhaps neither Buckley Jr nor his son engages in an intimate relationship with their characters. We can admire the scenarios, the insights, the political jokes, but we remain spectators at the sport. It takes an author like Joseph Heller in Catch 22 to combine the scathingly surreal with the most profound personal emotion.
With appealing modesty, Christopher Buckley describes himself as an ‘entertainer’. They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? will appeal to his fans. It may need another big screen movie, though, to reach out to a larger readership.