Summer reading: "They Eat Puppies, Don't They?"

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John F
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Summer reading: "They Eat Puppies, Don't They?"

Post by John F » Sun May 13, 2012 12:32 am

Dragon Bait

By Christopher Buckley
335 pp. $25.99.

“Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.”

Sun Tzu’s Chinese classic, “The Art of War,” gets quite a workout in Christopher Buckley’s latest uproarious political farce, fervently quoted by strivers and schemers in both Beijing and Washington. But while baiting seems to be a highly developed skill on each side, crushing may be only a distant dream — because the disorder in these capitals is hardly feigned. What else could result from a plot that involves desperate aerospace lobbyists, not entirely reliable not-so-secret agents, die-hard capitalist and Communist militarists, the United States equestrian team, a meth lab, Civil War re-enactors and Tibetan Buddhism? Far more apt to cite what one of the Americans calls Rumsfeld’s maxim: “If you can’t solve a problem, make it bigger.”

“Big” is the operative word for the predator drone the size of a commercial jet that’s being flogged by Walter (Bird) McIntyre on behalf of an Alabama-based military-industrial behemoth. So when the unfortunately named Dumbo is shot down by a Congressional committee, Bird and his boss go even bigger, attempting to inflame anti-Chinese sentiment so they can sell the government on Project Taurus, a high-tech weapon system so clandestine its mere name provokes shudders. And yet, as Bird quickly discovers, manufacturing this kind of outrage is a distinct challenge: “It was hard, really, to put any kind of definite face on China. The old Soviet Union, with its squat, warty leaders banging their shoes on the U.N. podium and threatening thermonuclear extinction, all those vodka-swollen, porcine faces squinting from under sable hats atop Lenin’s Tomb as nuclear missiles rolled by like floats in a parade from hell — those Commies at least looked scary. But on the rare occasion when the nine members of China’s Politburo Standing Committee, the men who ruled 1.3 billion people — one-fifth of the world’s population — lined up for a group photo, they looked like a delegation of identical, overpaid dentists.”

And, sure enough, when Buckley shifts the scene to the party leadership’s enclave near Tiananmen Square, the president of the People’s Republic, Fa Mengyao, is revealed to be a mild-mannered, self-­effacing centrist suffering from mostly mundane afflictions: indigestion, insomnia and an inability to quit smoking. If anyone could be said to specialize in the political equivalent of a root canal, it’s his minister of state security and minister of national defense, who will soon be drawn into a potentially catastrophic rivalry not only with President Fa but with their opposite numbers across the Pacific, thanks to Bird’s light-bulb moment: “The Dalai Lama is the one thing having to do with China that Americans actually care about.” And if His Holiness’s recent bout with what appears to be “a bad clam” or a stomach bug can be repositioned as a poisoning attempt by the Chinese (“Who needs evidence when you’ve got the Internet?”), Bird will be on his way to creating “the biggest martyr since Anne Frank.”

Assisting in — and quickly commandeering — this effort is Angel Templeton, “tall, blond, buff, leggy, miniskirted” and the very public face of a Washington think tank called the Institute for Continuing Conflict. (“We’re not,” she coyly explains, “really into deterrence at ICC.”) Semi-cowed, Bird attempts to impress Angel by dropping hints about the Taurus project, wild inventions (or are they?) inspired by the texts of the unpublishable novels he bangs out at night, full of “manly men with names like Turk and Rufus, of terrible yet really cool weapons.” Which prove irresistible to this single mother of an 8-year-old named Barry (as in Goldwater) who gets to spend weekends at the Aberdeen Proving Ground firing M1 Abrams tanks while Mom is busy busting up Bird’s marriage to a ferocious equestrienne whose major ambition is to compete for the Tang Cup — in Xian, China.

Buckley bounces the action back and forth between Beijing and Washington, with each side placing frantic calls to Henry Kissinger. Weekends are spent at Bird’s picturesque farm in the Virginia horse country, an establishment that also shelters his widowed mother (an Alz­heimer’s patient devoted to the reality-television show “1,000 Stupid Ways to Die”), his younger brother (a Civil War buff who has adopted the persona of a Confederate cavalry colonel) and a dentally challenged caretaker (who may be responsible for the strange odor emanating from the woods). A Taiwanese shrimp boat, the Cleveland Clinic, the Cheyenne Mountain Norad base and the “braying jocularity” of a private club offer more opportunities for plot enrichment, but Buckley seems to have the most fun using them as pretexts for amusing asides. “E-mails were the new herpes: you were never rid of them.” “He knew this much: After eight years of marriage a wife possessed better sonar than a submarine.” And, from the increasingly harried Bird, “Is being a novelist considered some kind of disability?”

Buckley clearly doesn’t think so. And in conjuring a world in which the besieged leaders of China and America wind up as surreptitious best friends while using the combined forces of religion and warfare to produce an “elegant solution” to their tension-filled standoff, he’s offering a few hours of comic respite from a real world in which even domestic cooperation seems increasingly fantastical. “The difficulty of tactical maneuvering,” one of his characters reflects, quoting Sun Tzu yet again, “consists in turning the devious into the direct, and misfortune into gain.” On the evidence here, Buckley finds the devious far more appealing than the direct, but he’s got the misfortune-into-gain part ­utterly handled. ... ckley.html
John Francis

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