Forget Outer-Space Aliens-Check Out Washington, D.C.

Little Green Men , by Christopher Buckley. Random House, 300 pages, $24.95.

Christopher Buckley has called himself the Cyndi Lauper of American letters. He just wants to have fun.

He’s good at it, he has lots of it. Mr. Buckley produces high-end humor in vast quantities. He tosses off, with alarming ease, New Yorker casuals and those light New York Times Op-Ed pieces they run at the bottom of the page on Saturdays. You’d think it was hackwork, because the genre invites the merciless beating to death of a single not-especially-funny joke for 700 words straight and because Mr. Buckley’s output puts one in mind of a man behind on his mortgage. But his pieces are fresh and delightful, just nasty enough, and they keep unfolding till the end, like origami backward, but effortlessly.

His novels, too, are serious works of sustained comic craftsmanship. The opening section of Little Green Men could hardly be more promising. It is set in Washington, D.C., about which Mr. Buckley is supremely knowing, and it introduces us to the novel’s protagonist, John O. Banion, as he pompously interviews the President on his Sunday-morning TV show. Calvin Trillin (who is, like Christopher Buckley, that unlikely thing, a funny Yalie) coined the term for what Banion is: a Sabbath gasbag.

Banion soon finds himself in the middle of a Government conspiracy involving U.F.O.’s. He becomes a Pierre Salinger figure: one minute powerful and authoritative, and the next discredited, a fringe character, a punch line. Banion is quite aware of what is happening to him, and his pained consciousness of his plummeting social status provides the satirical undergirding to a narrative that otherwise tends toward the zany.

You can understand why a lot of smart money was betting that Mr. Buckley was the author of Primary Colors . He could write Primary Colors over a long weekend. Witness his description of the press secretary who has displeased his boss: “his tie loosened and the thousand-yard stare of a freshly reamed Presidential aide.” Or the woman who has been covering Washington “since the Truman Administration” whose favorite phrase is “on the other hand.”

Mr. Buckley has his father William F. Buckley’s fondness for precision of expression, and this often gives his writing an altogether agreeable kick that owes something to the British. While the Washington scenes are just as rich, absurd and closely observed as anything in Tom Wolfe, Mr. Buckley delivers his blows without the cavalcade of italicized exclamation points. Also, but only occasionally, he tries his hand at a Martin Amis crescendo, to good effect: “the real money came from lecture fees, astronomical, bordering on intergalactic.”

The writing flows with a nicely understated hum, and the reader pauses occasionally, after laughter, to reread a particularly good bit. Here, for instance, is Mr. Buckley reproducing some dinner party chatter after an evening at the symphony: “On cue, the Speaker extolled American composers. He liked Aaron Copland ‘especially,’ meaning that he had just, thank God, thought of the name of another American composer.”

Recognizable Washingtonians make cameo appearances. Some bear their own names: Sam Donaldson; Robert McNamara; the lawyer E. Barrett Prettyman Jr. Others are disguised, but not much. Whoever could he be, that African-American lawyer and power-broker with a fondness for pussy jokes, the one named Burton Galilee? Or Karl Cuntmore, “techno-novelist supreme”? Erhardt Williger looks to be Henry Kissinger made more terrifying by dint of a “plummy Hungarian accent.” And so on.

Watching Banion interact with these personalities is entertainment of a high order. Mr. Buckley, who edits the FYI supplement to Forbes , is blessed (cursed?) with a precise understanding of the dynamics of Washington power. He’s particularly good on the press. At one point, Banion tries to kill a news story that will embarrass him. “I don’t know,” says the reporter. Mr. Buckley translates: “In newsroom parlance this means: no way pal.”) The author’s mimicry of the gleefully sharp tone of The Washington Post ‘s Style section is uncannily accurate; he has the paper call the theme music to Banion’s show “Fanfare for the Self-Important Man.”

There are footnotes in this novel, and their purpose is unclear. They remind me of David Foster Wallace, but they lack Mr. Wallace’s maddening digressive charm. They’re just little speed bumps. Sometimes Mr. Buckley explains, straightforwardly, some bit of Federal Government arcana or the background of a second-tier celebrity. Sometimes he finds a home for a joke that doesn’t fit into the main narrative. Thus, annotating “C.I.A.,” Mr. Buckley writes that it is a “U.S. intelligence agency” whose “main focus, in the post-Cold War era, has been to employ people who will sell vital classified information about it to foreign governments.” It may be that he is having a little too much fun here, at the expense of the novel.

Banion, a blowhard with an “admittedly intimate cult of personality,” is not an ideal governing intelligence for a novel or even, for that matter, a particularly well-developed character. It’s amusing to watch Mr. Buckley take whacks at him in the book’s early pages. Banion is, for instance, the author of a book called Screwing the Poor , as in “Screwing the poor really is the only way to help them, isn’t it?” And Mr. Buckley has him mouth some wonderfully pompous stuff (“Bill,” he says to his show’s sponsor, “not to sound like the Sun King, but I am the show”).

We are meant to warm to Banion as life crumbles around him. But he remains merely sensible and not particularly likable throughout, and his snobbery, which is entertaining while he is among his social equals at Washington brunches, starts to look more toxic as he descends the social ladder. Mr. Buckley, who managed to make a tobacco flack a hero in Thank You for Smoking , has his hands full with a Sabbath gasbag. Or maybe he’s not trying hard enough.

Right around the first alien abduction, the plot starts to hurtle forward. Unfortunately, as Banion says about something else, it’s “an interesting story, but one with a lot of runway and not much in the way of takeoff.” Little Green Men resembles an extremely professional screenplay: lots of incident and two kinds of dialogue, witty and expository. And then there starts to be less of what Mr. Buckley knows intimately, the Washington social scene, and more of what he knows through apparently diligent reporting, the surprisingly large American subculture convinced that people are routinely abducted and sexually probed by aliens.

That this culture is out there is indisputable. NBC recently devoted two hours to a program called Confirmation: The Hard Evidence of Aliens Among Us? (Note the delicious qualifying question mark and its losing battle with the big solid words–”confirmation,” “hard evidence”–that precede it. I guess the network officials in charge of not looking ridiculous were busy with Juanita Broaddrick.) Still, poking fun at people who think they’ve been poked by extraterrestrials leaves one a little uneasy. And the more Mr. Buckley has to concern himself with concocting zany plot twists and Government conspiracies, the less time he has for the fluid, hilarious descriptive and satirical passages that are his greatest strength.

Not to sound like his dad–and certainly not to sound like his dad–but one wonders whether Christopher Buckley is challenging himself enough here. He has mastered the high-end comic novel. He’s had his fun. Now he might try his hand at something with a little more heft and bite.