Christopher Buckley Critical Essays

Introduction

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.”