April 2007

Drew Nellins

fiction

Boomsday by Christopher Buckley

One thing I hate: any book that reads as if it’s based on an “idea” -- you know, those plots that occur to you on your way to work in the morning. Usually, they seem great on the surface, but any attempt to build an entire book on one reveals just how empty the idea actually is. As in, “Why hasn’t anyone written a book about a time traveling serial killer?” or “What if a blind man was cured but didn’t like what he saw when the bandages were removed?” Novels like this clog bookstore shelves, often sell well, and are usually terrible.

The other thing I hate in fiction: cleverness -- by which I mean an excessive reliance on wit, cynicism, or witty cynicism, as opposed to authenticity and earnest examination. Cleverness is usually employed as a cheap substitute for insight or a lame shortcut to edginess.

Very few authors can violate either of those guidelines and still produce something I want to read. One writer who can pull it off is Kurt Vonnegut, whose ideas and cleverness are so unconventional that to read one of his books is to witness a truly great mind at work. Another is Christopher Buckley.

His new book, Boomsday, is nothing if not idea-driven, and clever seems a staggering understatement. Set in the near future, when the mass retirement of the Baby Boomers threatens the security of our already teetering economy, the idea is this: What if, to save the treasury, the government started offering incentives to senior citizens willing to kill themselves? The plot will have a certain resonance for those readers paying into a Social Security system that might pay for their parents’ decline, but will likely not pay for their own.

Main character Cassandra Devine isn’t just concerned about the problem. She’s pissed. Cassandra uses her daily blog on the topic of Social Security reform to -- accidentally at first -- mobilize a movement of people who think the idea might be the best hope for a resolution. In an early scene, hoards of unhappy American youth wreak havoc on gated community golf courses. Molotov cocktails are employed. This alone makes the book worth buying.

Explaining the plot beyond that would be giving away half the fun of Boomsday. Suffice it to say the cast of characters includes the President of the United States, a techie billionaire, a senator from Massachusetts, a Catholic Cardinal, a born again right-to-lifer with a taste for Russian escorts, and a man named Terry who is the Michael Jordon of “creative” politics.

To those who have read Buckley’s Thank You for Smoking, his latest novel will have a familiar feel. Like Thank You, the funniest moments are grounded in political spin, and the writing has an up-to-the-minute feel, with pop culture references as fresh as the theft of Paris Hilton’s sidekick and Dick Cheney’s use of the word “fuck.”

Reading Boomsday, one is continually struck by Buckley’s ability to devise scenarios which are simultaneously completely absurd and only slightly unbelievable. In the same way that modern technology is always in the process of catching up to science fiction, Buckley’s take on behind-the-scenes politics seems dreadfully close to reality. If not today’s reality, then tomorrow’s. Fortunately for his readers, what could come across as wild cynicism is instead absolutely hilarious.

In the end, Buckley’s neat wrap-ups and flip approach keep him in the realm of brainy beach reads, but he is so good at what he does that I wholeheartedly recommend Boomsday to anyone who doesn’t mind being entertained by their fiction. Ayn Rand fans beware!

Boomsday by Christopher Buckley
Twelve
ISBN: 0446579815
336 Pages