It’s been such an absurd time, that it’s not out of the question for Christopher Buckley to try to find some fun in it, as he does intermittently in his new novel, ‘Somebody he saw my toes?” The unnamed protagonist is a screenwriter living in a comfortable, semi-retired home in South Carolina. But a new story eludes him, a snake has literally kissed his mailbox, and his body has betrayed him since before the pandemic. (The title refers to the central question as he steps on a scale, thanks to regular fast food binges.)
Early in the story, he’s sure he’s doomed after a worker at his favorite calorie-bomb supplier, Hippo King, sneezes in his general management. His doctor tries to calm him down: “Take a deep breath,” he says. But this soothing advice is not up to his fears. “It will get the droplets deeper into my lungs!” he retorts.
Our hero is sure a new script will help him find his center, but he hasn’t shaken the disgrace of his latest film, a childish prank about Revolutionary War-era prostitutes he has billed as “”The Patriot” meets “The Best Little Brothel in Texas.” “His new — a World War II thriller in which Franklin D. Roosevelt is kidnapped by Nazis — doesn’t look much more promising. (Working title: “The Heimlich Maneuver”.) In the meantime, he became excessively obsessed with the local coroner’s election. His psyche is flooded with imaginary attack announcements filled with accusations of shenanigans and premature burials. The Russians, he is sure, are involved in one way or another. His wife naturally sends him to a therapist.
Christopher Buckley’s ‘Make Russia Great Again’ is the Trump satire we’ve been waiting for
In short, “Toes” is a Walter Mitty story – a shaggy dog story about a man whose wild daydreams are both a coping strategy and a revelation of his character. Being obsessed with a coroner’s race can only be a cover for his fear of death. His struggle to hang up his silly story as Nazi kidnappers can only be a substitute for his own efforts to put his life in order — not to mention a way to deal with all the Trumpy and neo-fascist noise in the world. air. Factor in too much Google access, and he’s soon convinced that dementia is imminent, “wondering if caterpillars have crawled into his brain and are eating the wiring.”
For years, Buckley unleashed his morbid sense of humor on big targets. His 1994 breakthrough, “Thank You for Smoking,” looked at the tobacco lobby through an amusing mirror; 2020’s “Make Russia Great Again” did much the same for the Trump administration. His 2007 novel, “Boomsday”, was based on the idea that Americans over the age of 70 should be encouraged, as part of national policy, to commit suicide; 2012 “They eat puppies, don’t they?” turns on a plot to assassinate the Dalai Lama. Sacred cows, and their dismantling, are at the heart of the satirist’s craft. The pandemic must have seemed like just another field full of fears and pieties for Buckley to have fun with.
It is, to a certain extent. Buckley has a good time exploring the neuroses of pre-vaccine life: the hunt for alternative drugs; the minor test humiliations (“I thought the swab would come out of the top of my head. I’ve seen shorter telephone poles.”); the private hand writhing about whether you can politely ask friends if they’ve been tested before inviting them over. But a broader comedy about the covid pandemic would require satirizing the Trump administration’s ineptitude, and Buckley has already spent that powder on “Make Russia Great Again.” Once you’ve delivered the necessary jokes about testing, toilet paper, and masks (can you keep it on when you’re having your passport photo taken?), the well starts to dry up enough.
So “Toes” ends up becoming a novel about many things, as the hero’s busy mind ponders etymology, pandemic reading (Proust, in particular), and canceling culture, none of which don’t make particularly juicy targets for humor. (“Why not get a new R-rating for Racist? And WTL: Way Too Long.”) Buckley takes a crack at the Confederate statutes controversy, poking fun at a group called the Oaf Keepers, but the plot is as simplistic as the pun. This particular shaggy dog story gets very shaggy, and at times it’s unclear if Buckley himself knows where he wants the narrative to go.
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The novel holds together best – and is funniest – when Buckley sticks to the absurd scenario our hero is working on, his vehicle for confronting his fear of death. Just as FDR-as-hostage faces his impending demise, so does our portly, possibly coronavirus-positive, possibly senile hero. Hitler brags about his performance on a cognitive function test; a giant squid appears to save the day; double crosses abound. Anything that works. “He could add some counterfactual history,” the author muses, “the genre” and if “where, say, the South wins the Civil War, Lee Harvey Oswald’s traffic jam, or a failed casino owner is elected President of the United States. It all comes together.”
Except, of course, everything falls apart. But whatever. For anyone who lived through the early days of the pandemic, whatever logic and meaning there was in our lives. What mattered was that we lived to tell the story. And it’s a funny story – sometimes.
Marc Athitakisis a critic in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”
Simon & Schuster. 288 pages. $26.99
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