Christopher Buckley Essay - Critical Essays

Buckley, Christopher


Christopher Buckley 1952-

(Full name Christopher Taylor Buckley) American essayist, novelist, travel writer, and playwright.

The following entry presents an overview of Buckley's career through 2002.

The son of conservative political commentator William F. Buckley, Jr., and a former speech writer for President George Bush, Buckley is considered by many to be one of the preeminent political satirists in the United States. In such works as The White House Mess (1986) and Thank You for Smoking (1994) he has often traded on his intimate knowledge of Washington society, lacing his commentaries with sarcasm, irony, and a wealth of insider political commentary. Critics have responded favorably to his narrative control, descriptive passages, and wide range of satirical targets, including the U.S. government, the American tobacco industry, the military industrial complex, and the media.

Biographical Information

An only child, Buckley was born on September 28, 1952, in New York City. Buckley was raised in Stamford, Connecticut, where he attended various Catholic grammar schools. He later enrolled at Portsmouth Abbey, a secondary school run by a group of Benedictine monks. After graduating high school, Buckley worked as a deck boy on a Norwegian freighter for six months. When he completed his onboard service, he began attending Yale University where he earned a bachelor's degree in English in 1975. Buckley began his writing career at Esquire magazine, holding a variety of editorial positions that culminated in his appointment as the magazine's managing editor at the age of twenty-five. In 1979 he left Esquire and signed on as a merchant marine aboard a tramp freighter. His experiences on this voyage became the foundation for his first book, Steaming to Bamboola (1982). From late 1981 until early 1983 Buckley served as the chief speechwriter for then-Vice President George Bush. After revising the notes he accumulated during his time in Washington D.C., Buckley published his first novel, The White House Mess. In 1990 he collaborated with James McGuire on the play Campion and published his second novel Wet Work in 1991. That same year he became the editor of FYI, an insert of Forbes magazine. Throughout the 1990s Buckley continued to regularly contribute essays and articles to periodicals such as The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. In 1994 Buckley published Thank You for Smoking, which appeared just as U.S. congressional hearings commenced on the links between cigarette smoking and health issues.

Major Works

Steaming to Bamboola is an account of Buckley's two tours of duty on the S.S. Columbianna, a tramp freighter that regularly crosses the Atlantic Ocean. The text recounts Buckley's day-to-day life at sea and his reflections on little known maritime facts and the camaraderie of the men aboard the ship. His first novel, The White House Mess, takes a satirical look behind the scenes of U.S. politics, parodying life in the White House. Set in 1989, the plot revolves around the misadventures of Thomas Nelson Tucker—known as “TNT”—a fictional Democratic U.S. President who was elected after Ronald Reagan's second term in office. The novel is narrated by Herbert Wadlough, a middle-aged accountant who has abandoned a profitable position to serve as an advisor to the new president. However, most of Wadlough's duties involve trying to correct Tucker's numerous blunders and missteps in public. In 1991 Buckley published Wet Work, a satirical thriller—the title is a slang term for murder from close quarters. The protagonist, Charlie Becker, is a millionaire who has acquired considerable wealth by receiving government defense contracts. When Becker's granddaughter dies due to a cocaine overdose, he demands that the U.S. government retaliate against the drug dealers. When the government denies his request, Becker travels to South America to single-handedly destroy a Peruvian drug lord whom he holds responsible for his granddaughter's demise. Training a satirical eye on the Washington political scene yet again, Thank You for Smoking creates a fictional narrative surrounding the political spin doctors, lobbyists, media figures, and government officials who deal with the American tobacco industry. The story follows Nick Naylor, a disgraced news anchorman, who now works as the chief spokesperson for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, a group that tries to improve the public image of cigarette manufacturers. Nick becomes a media celebrity after being kidnapped by anti-smoking activists, covered in nicotine patches, and is able to survive and escape thanks to his high tolerance for the substance. Political cover-ups and deceptions are further developed as the principal themes of Buckley's comic novel Little Green Men (1999). In the work Buckley posits that UFOs and alien sightings are actually ploys by the U.S. government to convince Russia that the U.S. has access to alien technology and to scare the American public into funding missile defense technology. After making some disparaging remarks about the U.S. government, John O. Banion, an outspoken political commentator, is selected by a government official to be a victim of a phony “alien abduction.” The experience turns Banion into a fervent believer in UFOs, causing him to lose his career, credibility, and family in the process. Banion makes an appeal to other alien abductees across the country and organizes a “Millennial Man March” on Washington D.C. In 2002 Buckley published No Way to Treat a First Lady, another humorous look at life in the White House, with several parallels to the scandals that occurred during President Bill Clinton's administration. First Lady Elizabeth Tyler MacMann discovers that her husband, President Ken MacMann, is having an extramarital affair in the White House's Lincoln Bedroom. The next morning, the president is found dead and Elizabeth is the prime suspect. Buckley has also collected a wide selection of his essays and articles from his twenty-year career in the retrospective Wry Martinis (1997).

Critical Reception

Buckley has won acclaim in many critical circles for his incisive and witty prose. Reviewers have consistently praised the humor in his novels and his skill at creating believable characters, even within seemingly ridiculous scenarios. While many commentators have appreciated Buckley's insider knowledge of U.S. politics, some have argued that Buckley often fails in his attempts at satire, relying too heavily on slapstick violence and quick one-liners. While reviewing The White House Mess, James Wolcott has argued that the novel “is written in the chalky-white spirit of English aplomb in appalling circumstances. Buckley, however, would have been better off sticking to what he knows rather than imitating English models, because he simply isn't up to their cut.” Other critics, however, have applauded Buckley's humorous dissections of political issues and have complimented the range of his satire, noting that Buckley's lampooning is not bound by partisan politics. Andrew Ferguson has commented that “Mr. Buckley's ear for the cant of bureaucracy and publicity is pitch-perfect, and his rendering of the essential absurdity of so much of Washington life is unsparing but always humane.”

Principal Works

Steaming to Bamboola: The World of a Tramp Freighter (travel writing) 1982

The White House Mess (novel) 1986

Campion: A Play in Two Acts [with James McGuire] (play) 1990

Wet Work (novel) 1991

Thank You for Smoking (novel) 1994

Wry Martinis (essays) 1997

Little Green Men (novel) 1999

No Way to Treat a First Lady (novel) 2002


Joseph Sobran (review date 14 May 1982)

SOURCE: Sobran, Joseph. “Screened Personnel.” National Review 34, no. 9 (14 May 1982): 571-72.

[In the following review, Sobran applauds Buckley's descriptive abilities in Steaming to Bamboola, but believes the book lacks Buckley's personal glimpses and cohesive plotting.]

Samuel Johnson observed that every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea. The present book assuages such regrets.

When a Buckley traverses a large body of water, the predictable result is a well-written book. That much is beyond controversy by now. Any mild doubts as to whether Steaming to Bamboola is true to form may...

(The entire section is 1061 words.)

Leo Janos (review date 24 February 1986)

SOURCE: Janos, Leo. “A Speech Writer's Revenge.” New Leader 69, no. 4 (24 February 1986): 16-17.

[In the following review, Janos praises Buckley's insider knowledge and comic perceptions in The White House Mess.]

In the dark years of the late 1960s, when Vietnam, civil rights protests and a rebellious youth were tearing the nation asunder, I worked in a small bare office on the first floor of the Executive Office Building with a splendid view of the White House front lawn. I used a Royal standard to tap out drafts of speeches, letters, proposals, and statements on behalf of a certain tall Texan with large ears.

Twelve of us were spread around that...

(The entire section is 917 words.)

James Wolcott (review date 30 March 1986)

SOURCE: Wolcott, James. Review of The White House Mess, by Christopher Buckley. Los Angeles Times Book Review (30 March 1986): 1.

[In the following review, Wolcott expresses his disappointment with The White House Mess, arguing that the novel lacks the acerbic wit necessary for successful satire.]

Christopher Buckley's The White House Mess is a comic peek into the linty head of a political loyalist and winky-dink named Herbert Wadlough. A satire of Washington and Washington memoirs, The White House Mess is a tattling account of life in the Oval Office as seen by this nervous, pedantic weenie, whose job as personal assistant to the President...

(The entire section is 701 words.)

Thomas R. Edwards (review date 8 May 1986)

SOURCE: Edwards, Thomas R. “Boom at the Top.” New York Review of Books (8 May 1986): 12-15.

[In the following excerpt, Edwards offers a negative assessment of The White House Mess, contending that Buckley's satire is bland and imbecilic.]

It may seem some distance from a ludlum to a political burlesque like Christopher Buckley's The White House Mess, which declines to find much darkness just where we expected a lot, in the corridors of national power. Though the book carries dust-jacket testimonials from such as George F. Will, David A. Stockman, and John Kenneth Galbraith, who ecumenically agree that it's somewhere between funny and hilarious, its...

(The entire section is 673 words.)

C. H. Simonds (review date 9 May 1986)

SOURCE: Simonds, C. H. “Bumbling Down the Corridors of Power.” National Review 38, no. 8 (9 May 1986): 52-3.

[In the following review, Simonds praises Buckley for maintaining the balance between satire and insight in The White House Mess.]

Once in too great a while comes along a book that does in, for good, a whole dubious genre. Jane Austen and Catherine Morland finished off the Gothic novel (at least in its eighteenth-century manifestation; the modern form awaits, bodice unlaced, at your pharmacist's). Before Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm, readers could dislike the efforts of Mary Webb and her school, or be bored to tears by them; after Miss Gibbons,...

(The entire section is 1069 words.)

Christopher Buckley and Chris Goodrich (interview date 25 January 1991)

SOURCE: Buckley, Christopher, and Chris Goodrich. “Christopher Buckley.” Publishers Weekly 238, no. 5 (25 January 1991): 38-9.

[In the following interview, Buckley discusses his writing career, his body of work, and his future projects.]

Christopher Buckley has just returned from a two-week sailing voyage across the Atlantic—Canary Islands to Barbados—when he meets with PW [Publishers Weekly] at his office in the Forbes building in Manhattan. The experience shows: in his tanned face and bleaching-to-blond hair, of course, but also on Buckley's desk, piled high with mail and manuscripts awaiting his attention as editor of FYI, a new...

(The entire section is 1986 words.)

Brad Miner (review date 15 April 1991)

SOURCE: Miner, Brad. “Blood Feud.” National Review 43, no. 6 (15 April 1991): 55-6, 58.

[In the following review, Miner commends Buckley's suspenseful narration in Wet Work, finding it well written, unnerving, and humorous.]

Each time some poor kid croaks on coke, there's a trail left behind: from the OD to the pusher; from him to the dealer; finally to some big supplier. Now if you wanted revenge, if, no matter what, you loved that dead kid and wanted wild justice, and if you went down that trail to get some, it would surely be wet work; wet, for the splatters, the puddles of the sticky red stuff—some of it your own—that come with the...

(The entire section is 983 words.)

Joan O'C. Hamilton (review date 6 June 1994)

SOURCE: Hamilton, Joan O'C. “Warning: Hazardous to the Tobacco Lobby.” Business Week, no. 3377 (6 June 1994): 15-19.

[In the following review, Hamilton finds Buckley's satire funny and engaging in Thank You for Smoking, praising the novel's exposé of the tobacco industry.]

In the recurring nightmare that makes reporters wake up with the cold sweats, you believe a source who has just tipped you off to the Big Story, and then, after you run with it—whoops. Well, the nightmare came true for poor Nick Naylor.

A Washington television reporter, Naylor is on a run-of-the-mill assignment covering the President's trip to a Marine base when he...

(The entire section is 1001 words.)

Andrew Ferguson (review date 13 June 1994)

SOURCE: Ferguson, Andrew. “Up in Smoke.” National Review 66, no. 11 (13 June 1994): 68-70.

[In the following review, Ferguson applauds Buckley's wit, political savvy, and characterizations in Thank You for Smoking.]

In the daily melodramas of Washington life—at least the stock versions offered by the hometown paper and the network news—the plots are predictable and the characters easy to read. We have good guys (public-interest lawyers, environmentalists, idealistic congressmen calling for an “expanded federal role”), and we have bad guys (pro-lifers, Second Amendment enthusiasts, people with Pentagon contracts). And then we have the really, really...

(The entire section is 1004 words.)

Larry Tavcar (review date summer 1994)

SOURCE: Tavcar, Larry. “Smoke and Mirrors.” Public Relations Quarterly 39, no. 2 (summer 1994): 3-4.

[In the following review, Tavcar examines Thank You for Smoking in relation to the American public relations industry, noting the critical response to the novel.]

“Why do you do this? What motivates you?”

Nick Naylor confronts those questions about a third of the way into Christopher Buckley's satirical novel, Thank You for Smoking, published in May. Naylor, the novel's “hero,” is chief spokesman (“smokesman”) of the Academy of Tobacco Studies. It's 1990, and Naylor is being interviewed by a reporter from the conservative...

(The entire section is 997 words.)

Larry Wallberg (review date 31 July 1994)

SOURCE: Wallberg, Larry. “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (31 July 1994): 9.

[In the following review, Wallberg praises the comedy and cinematic qualities of Thank You for Smoking, but comments that the novel lacks strong characterization and a well-developed plot.]

The ability to turn readers into would-be stand-up comedians is one of the things that distinguishes a successful comic novel. Humor screams to be shared.

Which is not to say that Christopher Buckley's newest work, Thank You for Smoking, is merely mouth-pleasing, a collection of quirky jokes and smirky turns-of-phrase. It's got some neat visuals...

(The entire section is 744 words.)

Jonathan Foreman (review date 24 March 1997)

SOURCE: Foreman, Jonathan. “Boomer Humor.” National Review 49, no. 5 (24 March 1997): 55-6.

[In the following review, Foreman praises the unpredictability and the variety of subjects discussed in Wry Martinis.]

At the end of our phone call I asked the genial fellow who assigns book reviews for [National Review] if Christopher Buckley was in any way related to the illustrious founder of the magazine. “Oh, he's his son,” came the reply. I then jokingly asked if that meant I had to give the book a good review. There was a silence and then what sounded like a harrumph before my interlocutor hung up.

Glowing with the integrity for which book...

(The entire section is 811 words.)

Jonathan Levi (review date 28 March 1999)

SOURCE: Levi, Jonathan. “Shouts and Murmurs.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (28 March 1999): 6.

[In the following review, Levi argues that the humor and satire in Little Green Men is too reserved and tame.]

Back in the late 1970s, while a massive truckers' strike was choking the motor-ways 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.”


(The entire section is 933 words.)

Ron Charles (review date 1 April 1999)

SOURCE: Charles, Ron. “We Are Not Alone—But We Are Very Funny.” Christian Science Monitor (1 April 1999): 16.

[In the following review, Charles offers a positive assessment of Little Green Men, calling the work “a prankster's greatest fantasy.”]

The key to an April Fools' Day prank is plausibility. Tricksters crave that perfect blending of the ordinary and the ludicrous that can spin victims into a moment of comic panic.

Years ago, a friend of mine and I taught at a conservative private college in the Midwest. One semester, he hung a series of his quiet, muted paintings of the Maine coast in the school lobby. My stage was set. Using...

(The entire section is 681 words.)

Andrew Stuttaford (review date 19 April 1999)

SOURCE: Stuttaford, Andrew. “Contact.” National Review 51, no. 7 (19 April 1999): 65-6.

[In the following review, Stuttaford examines the political satire and humorous situations in Little Green Men.]

Space aliens are a nasty, bug-eyed lot, always plotting to subjugate the galaxy and firing off death rays. Not much use to us humans, you might think. But you would be wrong. As a plot device, the extraterrestrial can be most useful, a light shone on the peculiarities of this planet. And so, in his latest, and very funny, novel, [Little Green Men,] Christopher Buckley employs a motley and distinctly home-grown bunch of ETs to take a look at a close encounter...

(The entire section is 1041 words.)

Jacob Heilbrunn (review date 13 October 2002)

SOURCE: Heilbrunn, Jacob. “She Stoops to Conquer.” Los Angeles Times (13 October 2002): R5.

[In the following review, Heilbrunn offers a positive assessment of No Way to Treat a First Lady, calling the novel a “heroic and pioneering effort.”]

Christopher Buckley is, to borrow Major Bagstock's self-assessment in Charles Dickens' Dombey and Son, a devilishly intelligent fellow. In his bestseller Thank You for Smoking, Buckley mocked the pieties of political correctness. Now, in his novel No Way to Treat a First Lady, Buckley has surpassed himself. He has become a presidential historian. The result isn't humorous; it's hilarious....

(The entire section is 803 words.)

Further Reading


Adams, Phoebe-Lou. Review of Steaming to Bamboola, by Christopher Buckley. Atlantic Monthly 249, no. 5 (May 1982): 106.

Adams assesses the strengths of Steaming to Bamboola.

Aeppel, Timothy. “Tripping on a Tramp Steamer.” Christian Science Monitor (7 July 1982): 17.

Aeppel commends Buckley's descriptive passages in Steaming to Bamboola.

Blood, Amos. Review of Thank You for Smoking, by Christopher Buckley. American Spectator 27, no. 10 (October 1994): 77-8.

Blood applauds Thank You for Smoking, calling the novel a credible satire of...

(The entire section is 383 words.)