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Review: Who Killed the Dalai Lama?

Christopher Buckley, They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? (New York: Twelve, 2012). 352 pages. $25.99.

“They happened to get lucky — real lucky — with their timing,” a CIA official says of the co-conspirators at the heart of Christopher Buckley’s latest novel. Exactly the same can be said of Buckley. His ninth novel was in press, its dog-chomping title decided upon long before, when Jim Treacher of the Daily Caller broke the story that Barack Obama had boasted of eating “dog meat (tough)” as a boy, and the #ObamaEatsDog meme went viral. Then, just days after Buckley hit the bookstores with a new book that satirized the expensive sport of dressage (among other things), the New York Times obliged him with a 2,200-word front page story on Ann Romney’s immersion in “in the elite world of riding.”

You can’t buy that kind of publicity. Not that Buckley needs it. He may be the best comic novelist now writing in America, perhaps the best since Peter De Vries. His most celebrated novel is probably Thank You for Smoking (1994), a satire on the tobacco lobby and anti-tobacco zealots, which was filmed by Jason Reitman nine years later. I prefer Little Green Men (1999), his tale of a TV talk-show host who is abducted by aliens from a golf course.

The only child of William F. Buckley Jr., he was a speechwriter for Vice President George Bush before getting out of politics to mock it in hilarious restrained prose. The White House Mess, a 1986 parody of White House memoirs, established from the start of his career that Buckley had perfect pitch for the mendacious sincerity of Washington, D.C. Above all his characters want to preserve a reputation for high principle and upright conscience, even if everything they say reveals that they are, as Nick Naylor puts it in Thank You for Smoking — his second novel — “unholier than thou.” After God Is My Broker (1998), a caricature of self-help books that was cowritten with the science reporter John Tierney, Buckley knocked out a string of six political satires over the next 13 years. His targets included White House sex scandals, Islamism, bloggers, and the Supreme Court nomination circus.

In They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? the 59-year-old Buckley trains his sights upon China and especially America’s anxious relationship with China. In Washington, a defense contractor observes, “[t]hey’re more nervous about China than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.” Which makes life difficult for defense contractors, who only want to sell weapons to the government so that Americans can “sleep a lot more soundly.” Chick Devlin, head of the munitions giant Groepping-Sprunt (no one is better than Buckley at deflating an entire industry with one made-up name), hatches a plot to “gin up a little anti-China mojo.” As he explains to Walter “Bird” MacIntyre, his chief lobbyist:

“Last time I checked, their flag was flaming Communist red. Yes, I believe the time has come to educate the great dumb American public — God love them — to educate them about the . . .” — Chick paused, as if searching for just the right word — “the peril we as a nation face from from a nation of one point three billion foreigners. . . . If we can do that, then those limp dicks and fainting hearts and imbeciles in the United States Congress — God love them — will follow.”

Bird enlists the help of Angel Templeton, a dead ringer for Ann Coulter. “Tall, blond, buff, leggy, miniskirted,” Angel chairs the Institute for Continuing Conflict, which its detractors call the Institute for Never-Ending War. It is headquarters for “the so-called Oreo-Cons—‘Hard on the outside, soft on the inside.’ ” These are hawks who do not much care what Congress does “so long as they kept the Pentagon and the armed forces well funded and engaged abroad, preferably in hand-to-hand combat.” No one is more anti-China than Angel Templeton:

Am I the only person in this town who’s tired of hearing that the twenty-first century is going to be ‘the Chinese Century’? Could someone tell me — please — why America, the greatest country in history, only gets one century? And by the way, who decided this was going to be their century? Some thumb-sucking professor at Yale? Please.

Together Bird and Angel cook up a scheme. They plant the rumor that Beijing is out to murder the Dalai Lama. “You know the saying,” Bird tells Angel, “ ‘You can fool some of the people some of the time — and those are the one you need to concentrate on’?” The Dalai Lama collapses on his way to a meeting with the Pope. In the hospital in Rome, he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. He is given two months to live. But here the plot thickens. The medical report is stolen by the Chinese government, who keep the Dalai Lama’s condition a secret. The director of Chinese intelligence explains why: “Once he learns that he’s dying, he’s sure to petition to be allowed to return to Tibet.” And that the Chinese cannot permit.

They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? then becomes a fast-paced plot and counter-plot and counter-counter-plot involving not just Bird and Angel but the Chinese Politburo at its highest level and the inner bowels of the National Security Council to boot. Everyone, it seems, would prefer to see the Dalai Lama dead — the Chinese to remove the face and symbol of anti-China resistance, the Americans to blame the Chinese. And when the Dalai Lama finally dies, it is not clear if the cancer killed him, or if he was murdered; and if so, by whom. Buckley makes great use of the story’s twisting back-and-forth, not merely as a supporting medium for his tickling one-liners, but as a source of humor in its own right. National governments are basically spy agencies, he seems to be implying: plotting against enemies foreign, domestic, and inter-agency is the principal form of government work.

It is Bird’s wife Myndi, incidentally, who is into what he calls “the horse thing.” She is trying out for the American equestrian team which will compete for the Tang Cup in Xi’an, China. When her mare injures a tendon, she asks Bird for a $225,000 replacement mount. “The bloodlines are stunning,” she reassures him. “The House of Windsor doesn’t have bloodlines like this.” Bird balks at the price; Myndi gets angry. “Look,” she says — “we agreed when I decided to try out for the team that we were going to do this together.” Bird is struck by her conception of togetherness: “She’d compete for a place on the U.S. Equestrian Team and he would write the checks.” As for him, Bird’s avocation is writing novels — absurd techno-thrillers in the manner of Tom Clancy, to whom Buckley has long acted the part of scourge. When Angel teases him about his unpublished tetralogy, Bird explodes: “What is it with you people? Is being a novelist considered some kind of disability?”

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Buckley’s novel is its tone of quiet respect, even reverence, for Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th and current Dalai Lama. Along with Chris Matthews, he is the only character in the book to appear under his own name. “Americans love the guy,” Bird says. “The whole world loves him. What’s not to love? He’s a seventy-five-year-old sweetie pie with glasses, plus the sandals and the saffron robe and the hugging and the mandalas and the peace and harmony and the reincarnation and nirvana. All that. We can’t get enough of him.” In fact, Buckley gives little of him — but the little he gives is deeply moving. Not just for the reader, but for the characters in the novel too. Everyone who comes in contact with him is affected by him. Without any sermonizing at all, Buckley offers a serene and alluring image of anti-politics — the life of religion, which gives meaning to human conduct. Although he fires off a few zingers about public figures (“The vice president’s tongue is several time zones ahead of his brain,” the Chinese Foreign Minister says of a character who resembles Joe Biden), Buckley is more interested in more substantial figures.

The powerful example of the Dalai Lama accounts for Buckley’s own political attitudes in his latest novel. Ever since he famously broke with his father’s old magazine the National Review by announcing that he would vote for Barack Obama, Buckley has had a testy relationship with American conservatism. They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? is his first novel since the 2008 election. Its satirical transformation of neocons into “Oreo-Cons” is unlikely to win back many friends on the right. (“Norman Podhoretz?” Angel scoffs at one point. “That’s your definition of a major Jew?”) And a hint of sanctimony creeps into his political reflections early in the novel. The U.S. deployment of “killer drones,” he says,

was stark evidence that somewhere along the line Uncle Sam had quietly morphed into Global Big Brother. With wings. The proud American eagle now clutched in one talon the traditional martial arrows, in the other a remote control.

This is political speech more familiar among the neo-isolationist left. “If we’re really in the endgame of the American experiment,” as one character puts it in They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, for Buckley the cause is not a decline of American power or the loss of American exceptionalism — the cause is a decline of religion and the loss of religious influence like the Dalai Lama’s. If Christopher Buckley remains a conservative, in other words, he is a conservative in the mold of Whittaker Chambers. The difference is that he laughs at American politics while he retreats from it, and gets the rest of us to laugh at it too. “How sad it would be if our people saw what was going on in the world,” the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party says wryly when news of the Dalai Lama’s death is blocked at China’s borders. In Buckley’s fiction, what goes on in the world is less comic than what goes on outside its view — less meaningful too.


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