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No great sheiks

Florence of Arabia A Novel Christopher Buckley Random House: 260 pp., $24.95

October 24, 2004|Shashi Tharoor | Shashi Tharoor is the author of eight books, including two satirical novels, "The Great Indian Novel" and "Show Business."

In a recent interview, Christopher Buckley lamented that few readers or critics noticed that the initials of John O. Banion, the main character of his 1999 novel "Little Green Men," spelled "Job." John Banion also echoes John Bunyan, the "Pilgrim's Progress" author, whose protagonist had to cope with the Slough of Despond, the City of Destruction, the Valley of Humiliation and a town so trivial in its obsessions (like Buckley's Washington) that it was called Vanity Fair. Writing with such subtleties, Buckley told Atlantic Online, was tantamount to casting "pearls before swine."

Even for those with an appreciative eye for the obscure allusions he weaves into his characters' names, Buckley's pearls have lost their luster in his latest offering. "Florence of Arabia" gleams with promise as a comic novel of tropical topicality, but though Buckley's timing is on, he fluffs his lines. The best things about this disappointing book are its title (reportedly coined by Noel Coward) and its promotional blurb's promise, which makes a crude and unoriginal play on the word "Shiite." Like an alpinist who trips over his skis, it's all downhill from there.

As one has come to expect from Buckley, the premise is a clever one: the tale of a secret mission by an idealistic State Department Arabist, the Florence of the title, to foment women's awakening in Arabia through a daring TV station that broadcasts (and reveals) the hitherto unmentionable. But its execution, like the garb of most of the novel's female characters, leaves something to be desired. "Florence of Arabia" falls flat, not even Sunni side up.

The malady is an unevenness of tone: Buckley oscillates between low comedy and high-minded outrage, alternating lamely repetitive puns (generously subsidized mullahs are referred to as moolahs) with grim accounts of women being stoned to death. The same confusion of intent infects his stylistic flourishes. Buckley's usually Dickensian names misfire here; he seems torn between trying to be funny and seeming to be plausible. The result is names that sound authentically Arab but often aren't, and yet don't manage to raise a smile (Maliq bin-Kash al-Haz, brother of an emir called Gazzy). A Washington grandee lampooned in an earlier novel as "Prince Blandar" becomes "Prince Bawad." Yawn. The setting is the emirate of Matar, pronounced "mutter" (as the real Qatar is pronounced "Cutter"). This might be mildly amusing once, but the seventh time Buckley mentions it the effect is strained.

Buckley doesn't seem to know whether he's writing a comic thriller, a satirical send-up of the Middle East or a tract on the horrors visited upon women in that part of the world. He tries each in turn, none to good effect. You settle into a nudge-nudge-wink-nod pseudohistory of a country called Wasabia (land of the Wasabis, get it?) and look forward to a good laugh. But soon you find yourself mourning sympathetic characters stoned to death, and squirming at the clunky earnestness of lines like: "Do you realize how long it has been since an Arab country put something on the table other than self-pity, denial, finger-pointing and suicide bombers? For the first time in centuries, an Arab country is generating income not from oil but from an idea. In this case, that women might just have something to contribute to civilization other than their vaginas."

Only once does Buckley come close to redeeming himself as a satirist, describing a TV "news program in which several Middle Eastern experts, each beamed in from a different city, were screaming at each other about the need to remain calm." The best jokes are throwaways -- a breakfast TV show called "The Thousand and One Mornings," or the suggestion that a hedonist emir might pen an autobiography called "The Seven Pillows of Wisdom." But too many of his coinages are obvious: the Carlyle Group becomes the "Waldorf Group," a gaming resort area is called "Infidel Land." The obligatory scheming Frenchman is named Dominique Delame-Noir (Dominique of the Black Soul); he speaks "with the air of a rising souffle" and grins "Gallicly." In a good comic thriller, the laughs don't have to be plausible but the thrills must be. Yet the author's plot devices are so slapdash, and key developments are tossed off so perfunctorily, it seems he didn't even have the time to write us a good bad book.

It's a shame. Buckley is no run-of-the- Beltway humorist but one with an overeducated mind and an admirably warped sensibility. "I'm just trying to think outside the box," a character says in one of the book's better early moments. "What box? Pandora's?" her boss retorts. If only he had, Pandora's pearls would have sparkled before the swine. *

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