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Just Joking

WRY MARTINIS. By Christopher Buckley . Random House: 291 pp., $22

March 16, 1997|D.T. MAX | D.T. Max is a contributing editor to the Paris Review

Every generation gets the Buckley it deserves.

I can remember in the '70s my father's delight in archconservative William F. Buckley's "Firing Line." Later, in the '80s, he devoured Buckley's tory--or were they just pro-sailing?--thrillers. That schoolmasterish slouch? That plummy voice? Ughhh, Dad.

Meanwhile his scion Christopher was growing up, understandably straining to get out from under his famous father's shadow, sneaking smokes at prep school, signing up for a freighter, dropping acid at Yale and ultimately becoming--what else?--a writer. So when I was old enough, there was a Buckley waiting for me too.

Calmer times call for calmer minds. The younger Buckley, although once a speech writer for then Vice President George Bush, doesn't claim his father's political fervor, nor does he aspire to be the house intellectual of Republican Catholics. He pays the mortgage as the editor of Forbes FYI, a playful guide to being rich that gets sent quarterly to subscribers of Forbes magazine, and this frees him to pursue his true passion: writing fiction. While we are not exactly in the heyday of the satiric novel, it's still a fair compliment to say that Buckley's "The White House Mess" and "Thank You for Smoking," stories about a hapless presidential chief of staff and a hapless tobacco company lobbyist, are among the funniest novels published in the last decade or so. Read them if you haven't already. They show Buckley to be one of the best and surest political humorists in America.

"Wry Martinis" is a more modest animal. It's a collection of Buckley's short pieces, all but a few of which have appeared in magazines. His favored venues are his own Forbes FYI and the New Yorker, but Buckley, who has a warm spot for the Grub Street hacks of yore, has worked for most everyone: the Washington Post, Allure, Regardie's. Publishers generally release collections like this to keep a writer's name before the public while the author works on something more salable. Buckley, however, doesn't claim a nobler mission for this somewhat padded-out volume--"Wry Martinis" even includes a reprint of a profile of him that ran in the Washington Post--and the collection gives you ample chance to observe his peculiar genius at work.

Not to get too serious, but actually there are two Christopher Buckleys in these pages. One is a classic political satirist, as represented by the New Yorker pieces. Like Calvin Trillin, Buckley seems born to write in the slightly precious, highly civilized pages of that magazine. I can remember laughing with delight the first time I read many of these one or two pagers. His parody of a 1995 bestseller list, led by Tom Clancy's "Wank and File" ("President Jack Ryan prevents World War III after a homosexual U.S. Army colonel slaps a North Korean dictator") had me in stitches. Ditto "Unaclient," Buckley's take on how the likes of F. Lee Bailey, Johnnie Cochran and Alan Dershowitz would go about soliciting Theodore Kaczynski's business. "If you have any casting ideas," Dershowitz asks, "for who should play you--Eastwood? Van Damme?--let me know right away. They want to move on this quickly."

And there's the piece, "Colin Powell's Dilemma," in which Buckley gets inside the mind of Powell as he weighs jumping into the 1996 presidential race. Sample. "Pro: Slogan 'Powell to the People.' Con: Bob Woodward finding out replacement fender for '68 Volvo was hot."

Of course there's an obvious problem here. Who remembers Powell's Volvo? Or cares about Theodore Kaczynski? Even Clancy shows signs of aging. What in fact hold their flavor better in this book are the less showy pieces. These are written in a voice I imagine as closer to Buckley's own, a voice I call "Republican Party weenie." It's a stance similar to but distinct from the more macho posturing of better known Republican Party reptiles like P. J. O'Rourke. More laughing at oneself, less laughing at the poor. William Weld has that voice; so does Buckley's boss Steve Forbes. It's the voice of the guy who sits in traffic and daydreams of calling in a tactical air strike on his cell phone.

In another piece, he is more personal, writing about how he likes to check out what women are wearing. "I'll point out that a good linear foot of my bookshelf space is devoted to back issues of Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues," he writes. "Wry Martinis" is also about guy stuff. At Forbes FYI, where I suppose Buckley writes any article he wants--he's the editor, after all--what he seems to want to write about is camping in the Belizean jungle, checking out an aircraft carrier flight deck, enrolling in anti-terrorism school or, as one title puts it succinctly: "How I went Nine Gs in an F-16 and Only Threw up Five Times." Neat.

This half of Buckley's oeuvre brings to mind John Updike's famous observation that in America, a man is just a failed boy--this fits Buckley, a preppy Peter Pan, who in one of the more elegant and self-aware pieces, "Macho Is as Macho Does," realizes that although for a writer this stance is arousing, it's also limiting. As a teenager, Buckley escaped what must have been a highly competitive household by shipping out as a merchant marine. He toured the world and wound up with an obscene tattoo on his hand, the fruit of a drunken shore leave in Hong Kong. It is a tattoo that, as he moved reluctantly to maturity, he found, not surprisingly, got in the way. Finally, he made an appointment: "I went to a dermatologist [and] it took an old-fashioned glistening steel scalpel to cut it out . . . and 15 stitches to close it. It hurt, and this time there was no six-pack to ease the pain. Now, I look at the scar and think, 'What was I thinking?' "

What indeed?

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