We learn in the first paragraph of
Christopher Buckley's latest book, just released in paperback, that his fictional President of the United States refers to sessions of sex with one of his many mistresses not as such, but instead as when "congress is in session."
Such plays on words, along with crisp innuendos, ionispheric hieghts of hyperbole and direct, vicious stabs at Dan Rather, are just a few of the countless gifts Buckley gives his reader in "No Way To Treat A First Lady." It's thin and gratutiously margined, and I read the whole thing on a 5 hour flight (my first of two of that length today - and if you've got an empty hour and would like to have it filled with a frothing tirade against the "system" that alledgedly "secures" our grossly undeserving airlines, call me at any hour of the night or day and I'll hook you right up. Back to Buckley)
The book opens with the President, a more or less Clinton-like occupant, sawing away at a Hollywood bimbo in the Lincoln bedroom. Once done, he returns to the First Lady, just down the hall, and She Knows. They fight. The next morning, the President wakes up dead.
And soon enough, the First Lady is charged not just with murder, but assassination.
She then calls the nation's best trial lawyer, who she has a Past with, and whose nickname is "Shameless."
And off it goes.
If you know of Buckley - and I hope you do through at least his masterpiece, Thank You For Smoking - than suffice to say you're in for more of the same. You might also recognize him from his Shouts and Murmurs pieces in the New Yorker (if that rings a bell, are you familiar a piece whose name I've forgotten but might have been called "Kim Il Jung: Stand Up Comic"? Was that not the funniest collection of cognitive thoughts ever put to paper?).
If you don't know Buckley, then what he offers better than anyone else in the world is two skills: one, an unbelievable eye for the Inside Baseball world of Washington DC and the media around it (he has some stellar political credentials and I don't know them but he thanks "George '41' Bush" in the notes for helping him with the White House research, so there's some evidence for ya); two, though it looks like Washington DC, the actual canvas Buckley is working on are characters possessed of hyper-egos - everyone from the dead Pres to the repellent TV people (including Dan Rather) is a seething, horrible egomaniac. The women are unprincipled scheming slut-bitches, the men blind zealots to one cause or another, usually their own ambition. But that's Buckley's Deal. Afterall, the heroes of Thank You For Smoking were Public Relations directors for the Tobacco, Alcohol and Firearms industries.
Buckley's hyper-jaded world is not funny because, after the slut actress is humiliated on the witness stand, the press corps follows her to her hotel hoping for pictures or an interview. No, his world is funny because they follow her there hoping she'll swandive off her seventh floor balcony.
He offers hilariously overheated court exchanges and even more vapid commentary from TV's talking heads. The 'action' sequences of the book are about evenly divided between vicious swipes at either the OJ trial or all-things-Monica.
The book has 2 flaws, neither of which are really Buckley's fault and neither of which matter much. First, its too funny: by, say, chapter 3, Buckley has hit you with so many great jokes so rapidly that you've grown immune. You're aware the entire previous paragraph was hilarious, you just can't laugh anymore.
Second, though the book is no more a "murder mystery" than was, say, Steve Martin's Dead Men Don’t' Wear Plaid, it DOES suffer from the Achilles Heel of that genre: the endings always - ALWAYS - stretch fiction past its tensile strength. It was true for Raymond Chandler's hard nosed gumshoes, it's true for Buckley's raving lunatics of parody: to begin a mystery novel is to know you're going to end it knee deep in "oh-gimme-a-break"s.
Oh well - buy your ticket, take your ride, I guess.