Christopher Buckley is often and deservedly called America’s leading political satirist. He is certainly its funniest. His most successful novel, Thank You for Smoking, was published in 1994 and made into an amusing movie released in 2006. They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? is his ninth comic novel.
Buckley knows Washington’s political and lobbying culture from the inside. He is the son of William F. Buckley, intellectual leader of the modern American conservative movement and a prolific journalist, author and television personality. In 1955, William F. founded National Review, which for five decades under his editorship and ownership was America’s leading conservative journal of opinion.
Buckley came to Washington as a young man in 1981 to become speechwriter for Vice President George Bush. Buckley’s father died in early 2008, and later that year Buckley wrote an article explaining why he was going to disappoint Dad and vote for Barack Obama.
They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? (the title refers to Chinese culinary tastes) begins brilliantly with Walter “Bird” McIntyre as the young top lobbyist for a major aerospace defence contractor, Groepping-Sprunt. When Congress kills funding for their jumbo-jet-size predator drone (nicknamed Dumbo), Groepping-Sprunt’s CEO gives Bird a new assignment: create a phony think-tank and convince the American people that China poses a massive threat to the United States. “Putting the red back into Red China” will build support for funding the company’s latest goofy but colossally expensive, top-secret weapons project.
Bird is desperate to succeed quickly and in a big way because it’s costing a fortune in horseflesh to fund his wife Myndi’s quest to make the US equestrian team and compete at the Tang Cup in — you guessed it — the People’s Republic of China. Bird quickly finds a collaborator in Angel Templeton, PhD, former staffer for the National Security Council and the Pentagon.
Angel is now head of the Institute for Continuing Conflict and neoconservative dreamgirl. “For the cover of her most recent book, The Case for Pre-emptive War: Taking the ‘Re’ out of Retaliation, she posed in a red, white and blue latex dominatrix outfit. With riding crop.”
But despite her uproarious television appearances (which are a never-ending delight), Angel is a policy intellectual focused on the strategic threat posed by the emerging economic and military might of China. That won’t do for Bird because he can’t sell it. Americans simply don’t care about geopolitics. But when the Dalai Lama, in Rome to meet with the Pope, collapses and is hospitalised, Bird realises that Americans are interested in two things China-related-giant pandas and the Dalai Lama. Bird and Angel quickly concoct a rumour, which they plant in an Indian newspaper, that Chinese spies tried to poison the Dalai Lama.
From this point on, the novel alternates between Washington and meetings of the Chinese Communist politburo in Beijing. When it turns out that the Dalai Lama really has contracted a fatal disease and has only months to live, the US government is under pressure to demand that he be allowed to return to Tibet to die or at least that his body be returned to Tibet for burial. Either alternative would embarrass the Chinese government, but even worse would provoke an uprising in Tibet. US-Chinese tensions mount, and military confrontation seems inevitable.
As Bird and Angel, the CIA, and hardliners in the politburo calculate their options, they all come to the same conclusion. The best thing for each would be to assassinate the Dalai Lama as soon as possible. At this point, the plot has become satisfyingly complicated and appears to have considerable satirical potential.
Unfortunately, although the author provides hilarious inventions and subplots throughout, he fails to carry through. The politburo’s meetings become repetitive and static. The sex scenes are predictable. The Dalai Lama dies in a cancer clinic before anyone has a chance to kill him. Driving home on the weekend to Myndi and her horses, Bird hits a deer. He spends the rest of the novel recovering from his injuries and converting to Buddhism.
Buckley then lets the reasonable, boring people in the White House and the politburo take over. Together, the President’s national security adviser and kindly Chinese President Fa outmanoeuvre and stare down the warmongers and nut jobs in their governments. World crisis is averted.
Comfortable endings are fatal to political satire, which requires that things keep spinning out of control. In his acknowledgements, Buckley expresses his admiration for Terry Southern and Stanley Kubrick, who together wrote the script for Kubrick’s 1964 black comedy masterpiece, Dr Strangelove. It may be that Dr Strangelove could end with nuclear Armageddon because nuclear Armageddon was the great fear of the era. And Angel may be speaking for Buckley the satirist as well as for America’s neoconservative military interventionists when she complains, “Winning the Cold War was the worst thing we could have done.”