With war in Iraq officially ended and the one in Afghanistan slowly and painfully winding down, lonely eyes are turning toward the Islamic Republic of Iran. But if the neocon-truckling Mitt Romney campaign is any indication, there’s an audience for some old-fashioned saber-rattling at big second-world countries like Russia and China.
The comic novelist Christopher Buckley, presciently as ever, is here, cackling wickedly, to greet that audience before it even realizes its lamentable existence.
They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? imagines a fantastical military-industrial plot to foment tensions with China and thereby induce Congress to fund a fancy new toy for the Pentagon. The principals of the plot are Walter “Bird” McIntyre, Beltway lobbyist for a big aerospace defense contractor, and Angel Templeton, the sultry “directrix” of an “Oreo-Con” think tank called the Institute for Continuing Conflict. What, you ask, is an Oreo-Con? It is, Buckley writes, a conservative who is “hard on the outside, soft on the inside.” It’s a wry code for neoconservative, with softness understood as the casual disregard for the expanding scope of domestic policy under the George W. Bush administration: “Oreo-Cons didn’t really care what presidents and the Congress did so long as they kept the Pentagon and the armed forces well funded and engaged abroad, preferably in hand-to-hand combat.”
Bird McIntyre should be familiar to fans of Buckley. Think of him as another likeable antihero who could have fit nicely into the author’s 1994 novel Thank You For Smoking, in which lobbyists for the alcohol, tobacco, and firearms industries gathered for a weekly “Merchants of Death” luncheon. Bird is the MOD nonpareil. There may be more annual deaths attributable to booze, cigarettes, and guns, but those products lack the panache of “Dumbo”: a “predator drone,” as one war-weary senator describes it, “the size of a commercial airliner.”
As Puppies commences, Project Dumbo has been shot down by congressional appropriators. (The novel, incidentally, was written before Buckley could have known about the current budget sequestration panic in Washington.) Buckley’s narrator is suitably cynical about Congress’s cozy relationship with defense contractors. “In happier times,” he reflects, “getting approval for a Dumbo-type program would have consisted of a couple meetings, a few pro forma committee hearings, handshakes all around, and off to an early lunch. Now? Sisyphus had it easier.”
Consequently, Bird and his CEO, Chick Devlin, concoct a devious … what’s the advocacy industry jargon? … conflict-expansion strategy. Their goal is to sell a tight-fisted Congress on a mysterious new project code-named “Taurus.” It has something—Chick is not at liberty to say what—to do with China. The problem is, American lawmakers are loath to confront their creditor-in-chief. As Bird notes, “China is more or less financing our economy.”
“We’ll set up some foundation,” Chick informs Bird. “That way you’ll be technically working for it. Instead of the old military-industrial complex, God bless it.” This foundation will purportedly focus on “national security and Far Eastern issues.” But its true purpose is to conjure a new Red Scare that’s scary enough to justify Taurus.
Which is where Angel Templeton comes in.
Angel should be familiar not just to Buckley fans but to any consumer of political news. She—at least a good portion of her—is Ann Coulter. Behold the pinup Buckley paints: “Tall, blond, buff, leggy, miniskirted.” Actually, “Leggy” isn’t even the half of it. Angel’s legs, it is observed later, “seemed as long as the Washington Monument.” As for Angel’s mouth, it sounds a lot like Coulter’s, too. Echoing Coulter’s smearing of 9/11 widows and antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan, Angel calls a woman whose son was killed in action a “headline-hungry harridan,” an “opportunist” who had the invective coming because “she’s undermining the war effort.”
There is slightly more to Angel than mere Coulterian performance art. She has something that passes for an inner life. She’s a single, Type A soccer mom to son Barry (middle name: Goldwater). She interrupts a work-related cellphone conversation thusly: “Barry, sweetie! Stay with the ball! Stay with the ball! The ball! Kick it! Kick the ball! Barry! Kick THE BALL!” She has a complicated, mildly sympathetic sexual history with powerful men who promise and then fail to divorce their wives on Angel’s behalf, leaving her with the nickname “Silo.” Bird—married himself to a hell-on-wheels aspiring equestrienne named Myndi—is instantly attracted to, and utterly intimidated by, her. Bird concludes he is “no match for Angel Templeton. She made the man-eating lions of Tsavo look like hamsters. She’d chew him up and spit him out in little balls of gristle.”
Initially, at least, this only-in-the-Beltway duo is all business. Its first break in fomenting an anti-China arms race is a news report that the Dalai Lama collapsed during a meeting with Prince Charles. Thanks to their efforts, a story is soon planted in the pliant bottom-feeding New Delhi-based Internet media to the effect that the ChiComs had attempted to assassinate the spiritual leader of its wannabe-breakaway Tibetan province. Buckley has great fun with how this story—“developing,” as we’re accustomed to reading on the Drudge Report—plays out in the media. “Hardball” host Chris Matthews appears as himself in several scenes in which the plight of the pitiable Tibetans is debated. A certain Sarah Palin-like former governor named Penelope Kent also figures briefly in the media firestorm. “I can’t believe she was actually governor of a state,” Bird remarks of Kent. “This country. It’s going to hell.”
There’s some well-researched substance here about the labyrinthine world of domestic Chinese politics, too. Buckley sets a good chunk of the book in Beijing, where the (relatively) reform-minded President Fa Megnyao must fend off hardliners in the Communist Party leadership. Fa is tormented by nightmares of his deceased father and struggles with nicotine addiction (thank him for smoking!). Bird and Angel’s machinations have made his precarious position at the top of the party leadership that much harder to maintain.
In Buckley’s geopolitical story world, there are reasonable grownups, people who want to make the thing work, on both sides of the Sino-American divide. And then there are the nitwits, with their mutually emboldening acts of aggression, who profit financially or professionally from making the thing not work. Rather than thunder impotently at this heightened reality, a satirist like Buckley has another, better option: laugh at it.
Buckley laughs with a human touch, however. There isn’t a hint of malice in Bird. He does not deceive himself about the nature of his business; rather adorably, he deceives himself that the Tom Clancy-style techno-thrillers he earnestly pecks away at nightly have literary merit. He supports a live-in mother suffering from Alzheimer’s and a brother, Bewks, who spends his days in the “living history” business reenacting the Civil War. He’s responsible for the care and feeing of his wife’s horses, whose bloodlines would impress Ann Romney. All this, plus an apartment near the Pentagon—the “military-industrial duplex”—and a money pit of an antebellum estate in Northern Virginia horse country.
Buckley’s performance throughout the book is razor-sharp. Each chapter is a crystalline dialogue-driven episode in its own right. Eventually, as these episodes hurtle along, a Taiwanese shrimp boat is sunk by the Chinese. The U.S. responds by selling F-22 fighter jets and Aegis-equipped destroyers to the Taiwanese. And the Central Bank of China begins “making noises about sitting out the next auction of U.S. Treasury bills.”
The stock market was doing quadruple-front-flip triple gainers off the high board, gas prices were spiking at the pump, people were being laid off everywhere. But there was some good news, at least: Gold was at an all-time high! Yay! So if things got really bad, people could by groceries with twenty-dollar gold pieces or coupons from their gold stock certificates.
Such is this American life, “in hock,” as Buckley writes, “up to [our] eyeballs to the Chinese.” There have been jeremiads written about this state of affairs. No doubt more will be written. Christopher Buckley has given us something else: a sprightly cocktail of satire that nonetheless delivers sobering truths.
Scott Galupo is a writer and musician living in Virginia and a contributor to TAC’s State of the Union blog.