Buckley’s Modest Proposal

The connection between Christopher Buckley, the sort of writer whose novels are invariably described as “wickedly” something or other (clever,

The connection between Christopher Buckley, the sort of writer whose novels are invariably described as “wickedly” something or other (clever, satirical, entertaining et al.) and the folksy, friendly glass of warm milk that went by the name of E.B. White would seem to be an unlikely one. Until you consider that, though their approach is different, their appeal is largely the same: to bring comfort to their readers, to assure them that all is just as it should be. It matters little that, in White, the good guys win and our cherished national values prove sturdy and resilient, and, in Mr. Buckley, the bastards are in charge and our cherished national values are pimped out for maximum profit—either way, the final effect is to soothe, ameliorate, reassure us that nothing need be done about any of it.

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Reading Mr. Buckley’s Boomsday, I kept thinking how perfectly it fits the description set out by Robert Warshow in his 1947 essay “E.B. White and The New Yorker.” Warshow wrote about the tendency to deal with experience “not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted towards it.” He went on, “This makes it possible to feel intelligent without thinking, and it is a way of making everything tolerable, for the assumption of a suitable attitude toward experience can give one the illusion of having dealt with it adequately.”


A strange tack for a satirist to take, but then Mr. Buckley, perhaps better than any other writer, represents the way satire, which is meant to unsettle us, has been replaced by smug, cynical farce, which means to do nothing more than confirm our prejudices. Thus, in Mr. Buckley’s Thank You for Smoking (1994), the reader is regaled with the unthinkable idea that smoking-industry lobbyists are ruthless enough to stoop to anything on behalf of their clients, and that the politicians who oppose them are often more concerned with enhancing their own stature and power than with protecting the public health.


If you were comforted by that novel, or last year’s movie version, or any of Mr. Buckley’s other works, you’ll likely derive an even greater sense of security from Boomsday, in which we learn that the coming retirement of baby boomers ready to draw Social Security benefits will put a ferocious strain on our national economy, provoking resentment in younger generations and inspiring unscrupulous lobbyists, politicians and demagogues of every political stripe to ever more exploitive and outrageous manipulations of public anger. Put Aunt Tillie to bed.


The “wicked” quotient in Boomsday, just the thing to fire up the blurbs now in the making, comes by way of the portentously named D.C. consultant and blogger Cassandra Devine. Cued to be amused by her heartlessness thanks to her roster of appalling clients (including the C.E.O. of a hospital-administration business who leaves patients with substandard care while raking in a huge salary and stock bonuses), we’re ready for Cassandra’s brainchild, a plan by which the government will offer incentives—paid vacation, estate-tax waiver—to people who agree to kill themselves by the time they hit 75. And when younger people, fired up by Cassandra’s blog, begin attacking retirement communities, the scheme acquires potential political heat. Looking to exploit that advantage is Randolph Jepperson, a Massachusetts Congressman eager for career advancement, who makes common cause and then whoopee with our heroine. (Swap a Humvee and a minefield in Bosnia for a sedan and a bridge in Chappaquiddick and it’s clear who Mr. Buckley has in his sights.)


At this point the reviewer, eager not to spoil the pleasure that awaits you, dear reader, resorts to phrases like “hilarious complications ensue,” followed by a short list hinting at the ingenious plot points: a right-to-life bigwig; Cassandra’s computer-tycoon daddy; Russian hookers; a compromised monsignor; a slick Presidential advisor and his increasingly unpopular President.


As a farceur, Mr. Buckley has a knack for escalating mayhem, but his keen sense of his own cleverness snuffs the spark of delight that farce needs. (The type of thing he’s attempting here has been done much more joyously by Peter Lefcourt in novels like The Dreyfus Affair: A Love Story, Di and I, and Abbreviating Ernie. That Mr. Lefcourt is able to see the absurdity of contemporary culture and still get a kick out of its juiciness is a mark of his generosity.)


But Mr. Buckley isn’t content with farce; he wants to be a satirist. And, invariably, someone—I mean someone besides the author of the jacket copy—brings up Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Which, in this instance, is a little like bringing up Moby-Dick in the midst of Gilligan’s Island. Real satire requires a measure of deadly seriousness and steely logic. The Swift essay is so effective precisely because the reasoning in it is so hard to refute. And satire won’t necessarily make us laugh: It should, as the great Terry Southern once said, seek to astonish us. That’s exactly what artists like Michael Tolkin, in his novel Among the Dead and his film The New Age, and Michel Houellebecq, in his superb Platform, accomplish. The astonishment can be mixed with disgust or exhilaration, but there’s the sense that impossible things are happening in an utterly rational manner.


There can be no astonishment in writing when the main goal is to convey to the reader that the writer is onto everyone else’s bullshit, above being surprised by any of it. Like a mom making sure all the kids get the same number of cookies, Mr. Buckley carefully parcels out his jibes among left and right. He drops E! and Paris and Britney and Lindsay references to show us he’s hep to the jive. (But could he identify Arcade Fire, Chamillionaire or Rachel Bilson?) As Warshow wrote back in 1947, “In this human and yet knowing atmosphere, history and destruction and one’s own helplessness become small and simple and somehow peaceful.” Or, to make a pop-culture reference that Mr. Buckley would be unlikely to catch, it’s the end of the world as we know it and he feels fine.


Charles Taylor has written for Salon, The New York Times, The New Yorker and other publications. He’s a frequent contributor to The Observer.

Buckley’s Modest Proposal