Buckley's over-the-top novel gives boomers an easy way out
Christopher Buckley had just endured that baby boomer rite of passage, a colonoscopy, when he received a blind-sided compliment that trumped every glowing review he's ever received. "I remember being wheeled out to the waiting room, I was gaga on Demerol, and the attendant who was transporting me said, are you the Christopher Buckley who writes books? I said, well, I think so. She said, well, my husband had spinal surgery and while he was recovering in the hospital, we gave him your book, Little Green Men, and he laughed so hard that the doctors took it away."
"That was a sweet moment. Those are satisfying moments," Buckley recalls. "At least I think she said that."
Fresh from promoting the film version of his archly funny, lobbyist-lampooning satire Thank You for Smoking, Buckley now turns his over-caffeinated imagination loose on his own g-g-g-generation in what may be the funniest book of a very funny career, Boomsday.
The premise is priceless: Cassandra Devine, a 29-year-old blogger incensed because her dot-com failure of a father wouldn't send her to Yale, incites America's youth to riot on ritzy golf courses to protest the mounting Social Security debt. Devine's plan gains momentum when she proposes legislation that would offer boomers government incentives to kill themselves by age 75, thereby relieving the financial burden on her generation. Here she describes the details of what she euphemistically calls "voluntary transitioning":
"Free medical. Drugs—all the drugs you want. Boomers love that kind of pork. The big one is no estate tax. Why leave it to Uncle Sam when you can leave it to the kids? That'll get the kids on board. . . . By my calculations, if only twenty percent of the 77 million Baby Boomers go for it, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid will be solvent. End crisis."
Buckley laughs, slipping into the persona of Smoking's PR wiz Nick Naylor. "If you thought selling tobacco was challenging, try selling suicide! Well, we need to get a senator!"
Enter scion of American aristocracy Randolph K. "He's-No-Jefferson" Jepperson IV, a camera-ready Boston playboy whose call to public service came from JFK himself during a particularly vivid acid trip in the I.M. Pei-designed Kennedy Library.
Devine wants revenge, Jepperson covets the White House, and with the help of PR puppet master Terry Tucker, both may get their wish. Tucker deftly spins "transitioning" into a positively perky-sounding campaign platform. All aboard for Jepperson's hilarious run at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Buckley crams his sturdy framework with the kind of laugh-out-loud detail that can only come from a journalist's deep appreciation for the real-life absurdity that surrounds us. Southern pro-life candidate Gideon Payne, founder of SPERM (Society for the Protection of Every Ribonucleic Molecule), incumbent President Riley Peacham (who naturally detests his surname) and the over-the-top opposition group ABBA (Association of Baby Boomer Advocates, with a nod and wink to the "Mamma Mia" band) all take turns on this giddily spinning stage.
No one wrings more laughs than Buckley from the interstitial space between truth and fiction. The son of conservative National Review founder William F. Buckley has largely followed his father's blueprint, having dabbled in politics as a speechwriter for Vice President George Bush between 1980-1982 and written for and edited a number of magazines (he currently edits ForbesLife) before turning to fiction. If his fancy runs more toward cultural observation than political ideology, what can he say? He's a boomer.
"I love our culture for all its amazing preposterous-nesses," says Buckley. "I have an underlying affection for it. My stuff is not mean. It may not be the best there is, but it's very far from the meanest there is. Boomsday is targeted at our boomer self-preoccupation, but on the other hand, I also love our generation. I mean, some of my best friends are boomers!"
The state of the world today provides abundant targets for Buckley's rubber-tipped arrows. In fact, it's all a satirist can do to stay ahead of the real-life punch lines, as Buckley found out when Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards hit a rough patch due to the anti-Catholic blogs of a staffer.
"I am frequently overtaken; it happens all the time, especially writing a novel that takes about nine months," he says. "You'll write something in February and you slap yourself on the back for being so clever and then in March you open the paper and it's already happening. You've got to run pretty fast if you write reality-based humor."
He was especially tempted by the revelation that $12 billion in cash had somehow gone astray en route to Iraq.
"Yeah, how about that—363 tons of money? Where did it go? Well, that's George Clooney's next movie, Oceans 14 or Four Kings. There is a sense of, didn't we use to be able to do this stuff? What's going on here?" he wonders.
Buckley admits there's some genuine concern behind his Boomsday premise. "Consider the economic and cultural ramifications of having 77 million seniors; of course, it won't happen all at once. Unless certain things are done, it's going to have calamitous economic ramifications for the poor dears following us who have to pay for all this," he says. "The kernel of anger in the book is the idea that we try to leave the world better off for the next generation, but what we're actually doing is writing checks on their bank accounts."
At 54, Buckley is just as bewildered as the next boomer to find the ads on the evening news suddenly aimed at him.
"I don't even know what restless leg syndrome is, and yet I'm being urged to see my doctor about it. And of course these Cialis ads: 'In the event of an erection that lasts more than four days, immediately consult a doctor.' Consult a doctor? I'm going to consult the nearest bordello!" Buckley says, laughing. "Bring me myseraglio!"
Jay MacDonald writes from deep in the heart of Texas.