Buckley is at his searing best setting up Bird’s busy life, split between his 110-acre country estate, Upton, or, as he calls it, Upkeep, and the condo in Rosslyn (on the Confederate side), that he calls “the Military-Industrial Duplex.” In his off-hours, Bird is writing a series of thrillers (the wonderfully titled “The Armageddon Exfiltration,” “The Armageddon Infiltration” and “The Armageddon Immolation”) and dealing with his wife Myndi’s expensive quest to become an Olympic equestrian rider.
Bird’s world, like our politics, exists still in the shadow of the Civil War. His boss is a Pennsylvania native who affects a Southern accent and refers to “the War of Northern Aggression.” His brother,
Bewks, is a slightly kooky Civil War reenactor. And no fewer than three times, his real estate agent confides that a grand house was nearly burned down by Yankee soldiers: “And do you know, it was the slaves who saved it!”
When Groepping-Sprunt’s latest project, the massive and massively armed drone Dumbo, is canceled in a Senate hearing because of a “ ‘funding factor’ (Washington-speak for ‘appalling cost overruns’ ” and “a bit of a ‘perception problem’ (Washington-speak for ‘reality’),” Bird is dispatched by his bosses to start a phony foundation to create a new threat to American security.
The target: China.
Bird’s first stop is the Institute for Continuing Conflict — a think tank with a thinker named Angel Templeton, one of that breed of “tall, blond, buff, leggy, miniskirted” conservative commentators who seem to be manufactured in a Fox News lab somewhere. Angel is the single mother of a boy named Barry Goldwater Templeton. Her most recent book is “The Case for Preemptive War: Taking the ‘Re-’ Out of Retaliation.” When she’s not writing articles such as “Nuke Iran Now,” Angel spends her time on the TV show “Boring In,” getting the best of stammering liberal professors or calling a dead soldier’s grieving mother “a headline-hungry harridan” for undermining the war effort.
Their dialogue juiced with sexual tension, Bird and Angel set out to find — or create — some rationale for elevating China’s villainy profile and thus giving a jolt to the slumping aerospace industry. But how do you alert the blithe American public to the Chinese threat while they’re so busy playing with their cheaply made iPhones?
The solution: Tibet.
Turns out the Dalai Lama has gotten sick during a meeting with the pope. It’s probably just food poisoning, but a well-placed story on that Indian Web site, the Delhi Beast, launches an alternate explanation: The Chinese government poisoned him.
From here, Buckley ventures to Beijing, where Chinese President Fa Mengyao is tortured on one side by nightmares of Tibetan violence and on the other side by hard-liners who think the answer to the bad publicity over the Dalai Lama-poisoning story might be to actually poison the Dalai Lama.
Buckley knows Washington. He knows satire. He knows Dr. Strangelove and how to ratchet up absurdities. As our antiheroes get closer and the stakes climb, the book mixes outrageousness and plausibility like a dirty martini. But unlike “Thank You for Smoking,” which managed the neat trick of pulling us closer to the lobbyists it satirized, “They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?” begins to lag as it drifts further from Bird, bouncing from Beijing to Washington, from meeting to television chat-fest to one-sided phone conversation.
Chapter after chapter begins with someone speaking. Soon, the plot is carried by news stories and meetings — hardly ever a winning strategy for a fiction writer. Along the way, the talk even drowns out a couple of great comic possibilities, as when a New York Times reporter comes to investigate Bird’s phony foundation, and he has to staff it with his brother’s Civil War reenactors.
Still, this is a funny book, and there’s nothing here to displease the devoted Buckley fan. And perhaps it speaks to his skill with satire that as the world teeters toward war, we find ourselves missing his lobbyist.
Walter’s six novels include “The Financial Lives of the Poets” and the forthcoming “Beautiful Ruins.”