Shouts and Murmurs
Back in the late 1970s, while a massive truckers’ strike was choking the motorways of England, the House of Lords was debating the existence of UFOs and companion creatures like the Loch Ness monster, which, as one lord postulated, was created by the lesser cherubim and seraphim from leftover divine essence, much in the way “Mummy used to give us bits of extra dough to make those funny little men with sultanas for tummy buttons.”
As always, Britain was way ahead of the United States. But not ahead of Christopher Buckley. In his latest novel, “Little Green Men,” Buckley posits the existence of a super-secret government agency dedicated to creating and maintaining a public belief in the existence of extraterrestrials. MJ-12 came into being “during that golden Cold War summer of 1947. It had staged the first sighting of unidentified flying objects over Mt. Rainier on June 24 and followed that debut two weeks later with the Roswell ‘crash’ of alien spacecraft. The idea was simple enough: convince Stalin that UFOs existed and that the United States was in possession of their technology.” MJ-12 would not only put fear in the hearts of the Soviets but also put money in the pockets of defense contractors. “A country convinced that little green men were hovering over the rooftops was inclined to vote yea for big weapons and space programs.”
It’s a brilliant conception with its overtones of Strangelovian Doomsday devices. And into its maw, Buckley throws an unlikely straight man, John O. Banion. Banion is the premier power pundit of America. Author of meaty policy tomes from “Pig’s Breakfast: The Failure of U.S. Foreign Policy from Cuba to Beirut” to “Screwing the Poor,” a controversial bestseller on welfare reform, Banion is, most importantly, the host of “Sunday,” the most influential political television program in the country. Congressmen, senators, Supreme Court justices, even the president of the United States himself, creep cap in hand onto Banion’s show, hoping to escape with some fraction of their own messages in the face of Banion’s withering style. Stanley Kubrick could not have made a defter choice of hero.
Banion’s connections and ratings are extraordinary. Add to that a wife named Bitsey and a spotless character drilled into him by generations of WASP forebears and Banion seems clothed in an impenetrable armor. Yet, as we all learned in “Dr. Strangelove,” the real danger to both nation and man is not from foreign aggressor or domestic foe but from common garden-variety boredom.
A low-level MJ-12 operative named Scrubbs, responsible for staging mock-alien abductions of overweight housewives (in order to keep the supermarket tabloids on a state of high alert), decides to break the tedium of routine by giving Banion a close encounter of the third kind. Without authorization, Scrubbs has Banion abducted and “probed” by a foursome of “aliens,” just off the fourth hole of the Burning Bush golf course.
Suddenly, Banion is filled with the fire of a Moses. Forget about the trouble in Russia, forget about the political shenanigans of the current occupant of the White House. There are little green men from outer space on the loose. And Banion must harness the power of his TV show, his syndicated newspaper column and his high-priced speaking engagements to warn the country that the sky is falling.
Were he English, no doubt young Buckley would be a lord-in-waiting, a viscount or marchioness, as a card-carrying member of the media-cracy, heir to the journalistic mantle of Father William (founder of the conservative magazine the National Review) and the political peerage of Uncle James. The DNA of “Little Green Men” is full of the below-the-beltway in-jokes and acronyms that must have suckled its author at an early age. But the blood that runs through Christopher’s veins is less toxic than the blue stuff of his father. Equal parts quicksilver and curare, it quickens Buckley’s pulse with the delight of an entertainer rather than the passion of a true believer.
Some of the funniest passages, in fact, are little entertainments, footnotes that Buckley kindly includes for those of us from a galaxy outside of Washington. Pierre Salinger, it is explained in bottom-of-page fine print, is an “increasingly obscure figure, believed to have been JFK’s press secretary.” Juggs magazine, in a dig against one political rival to the National Review, is qualified as “a glossy magazine devoted to large-breasted women, begun as a color insert in the Atlantic Monthly.”
Here are the reasons why Buckley’s “Shouts and Murmurs” in the pages of the New Yorker is so enjoyable. And indeed, one might imagine the outline for the novel provoking fits of phlegm and laughter on West 43rd Street. Yet short stuff does not a novel make.
Though the premise of “Little Green Men” is A-1, with all the elements for a first-class farce, the in-between bits, the dough that connects all the chocolate drops and sultanas, lacks the divine essence of comedy. The novel goes about its business with its collar firmly buttoned down. Even its occasional silliness is more of the accountant-with-a-lampshade-on-his-head variety. Buckley’s comedies of good manners have always tended to tickle rather than skewer, to wink rather than chomp. But though Banion, even at the heights of romantic ecstasy, may have trouble loosening his necktie, one wishes that Buckley would drink a little more deeply of his own wit and howl at, if not reach for, the stars.
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