Sunday, November 18, 2012

Giving China the "Bird": A Review of Christopher Buckley's They Eat Puppies, Don't They?

Title: They Eat Puppies, Don't They?
Author: Christopher Buckley
Edition: Twelve (Hardcover, 2012)
Pages: 335
How I Came by This Book: The cover caught my eye when I saw it on the shelf at my library.

About the Author: Christopher Buckley is the author of fourteen books, among them Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir and Thank You for Smoking, which was made into a movie in 2005. He first visited China in 1974 as a guest of the government. He did not eat any puppies, but, out of politeness to his hosts, managed to choke down numerous sea slugs, the memory of which still makes him shudder. A spontaneous attempt to present Chairman Mao with a jar of American peanut butter resulted in his nearly being gunned down by unamused palace guards. He lives in Connecticut with his wife, Katy, and yellow Labrador retriever, Jake, who no longer retrieves, preferring things to be brought to him.

Synopsis: In an attempt to gain congressional approval for a top-secret weapons system, Washington lobbyist "Bird" McIntyre teams up with sexy, outspoken neocon Angel Templeton to pit the American public against the Chinese. Then Bird fails to uncover an authentic reason to slander the nation, he and Angel put the Washington media machine to work, spreading a rumor that the Chinese secret service is working to assassinate the Dalai Lama.

Meanwhile in China, mild-mannered President Fa Mengyao and his devoted aide Gang are maneuvering desperately against sinister party hard-liners Minister Lo and General Han. Now Fa and Gang must convince the world that the People's Republic is not out to kill the Dalai Lama, while maintaining Fa's small margin of power in the increasingly militaristic environment of the party.

On the home front, Bird must contend with a high-strung wife who entertains Olympic equestrian ambition, and the qualifying competition happens to be taking place in China. As things unravel abroad, Bird and Angel's lie comes dangerously close to reality. And as their relationship rises to a new level, so do mounting tensions between the United States and China.

Review: I had read a different Buckley novel, Little Green Men, a while ago, before I even started this blog, and wasn't quite sure how to take it. I liked it, especially all the bits before what I considered to be a lackluster ending. The same goes here for Buckley's latest, They Eat Puppies, Don't They?

Bird McIntyre is an aspiring novelist and lobbyist trying to drum up anti-Chinese sentiment. When the Dalai Lama collapses in Rome, Bird gets an idea: make people think that the Chinese have attempted to assassinate him. Everyone loves the Dalai Lama, right? That'll be sure to make Americans hate the Chinese. Teaming up with single mom neocon Angel Templeton--with all the slick and sickening spin of Ann Coulter, just with more personality--he feeds lies about the Chinese to an Indian newspaper, setting off a series of events that could have devastating consequences. Satirical in nature (but too close to the truth about lobbyists and neocons for it to be laugh-out-loud funny), the novel pokes fun at the media, war hawks, the right, the left, and everything in between.

This is a novel about the rich and powerful and the mischief they get up to. There are a few characters--Bird's wife and the war hawks Lo and Han--that are obnoxious and need to be smacked upside the head, but the rest of the characters are actually pretty likeable. Bird is a little too incompetent to be believable as a highly-desired defense lobbyist, but he's likeable enough for the reader to overlook that. Angel is an absolute horror when it comes to what she believes, as well as her war-loving personality, but the bits with or about her son give her an interesting softness that is lacking in some portrayals of women in politics. The stand-out characters are actually Fa and Gang, the dove-ish Chinese leader and his faithful sidekick, and Bewks, Bird's Civil War-reenacting brother. These three are reason enough to read this book, especially for Fa and Gang's bathroom conversations (a necessity given that his house is bugged and the only way for them to talk is to keep water running in order to garble their words) and Bewk's brothers-in-arms coming to Bird's aid at the end of the novel.

A lot of this novel made me uncomfortable because of the racism and the disdain for others that a lot of the characters express. Angel and Lo are the biggest perpetrators of this, but there are a lot of conservative people saying a lot of horrible things. Yes, the novel is a satire, and yes this aspect of the novel is meant to caricature certain types of people, but I still couldn't help but shake my head every time someone said something ridiculous or offensive. There are far too many people in this country who hold racist beliefs and who will openly articulate them for me to find these caricatures funny. Knowing that Buckley is the son of National Review-founder William Buckley (and that he wrote for the publication for a while) makes me even more uneasy about it.

The novel goes pretty strong for a while. The plot is twisty-turny with pretty much everyone planning at some point to assassinate the Dalai Lama. The story develops at a nice pace, with some great diversions, like Gang's sudden addiction to American fast food or Angel's on-air verbal sparring matches with Winne Chung, the chair of the U.S.-China Co-Dependency Council (complete with a literary cameo by Hardball's Chris Matthews). The eventual resolution of what becomes the main issue of the novel (which I won't give away but which I will say involves a dispute over the Dalai Lama) is ingenious and actually shows that Bird isn't a complete moron. But there were some parts of the end, mostly involving a surprising development in Bird's spirituality, that fell flat and were sort of unbelievable.

In the end, I liked this novel well enough and would recommend people read it but it's not one that I read over and over again. It's a timely piece of fiction that satirizes the current zeitgeist regarding China and which manages to show the complexity of the issue in a very prescient way, but Angel's constant conservative babble and Bird's odd transformation at the end left me feeling a

I'm giving They Eat Puppies, Don't They? four out of five Gabriels.


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