Monday, January 27, 2014

Book Review: "Wry Martinis," by Christopher Buckley (1997)

"Wry Martinis," by Christopher Buckley.

“Wry Martinis,” by Christopher Buckley, is a 1997 collection of short, humorous pieces that he mostly wrote for magazines. It’s a fast, funny read that any fan of Buckley’s satire will enjoy. Inevitably, some of the pieces have dated, as they were written at a specific moment in our cultural history. I’m thinking mainly of the O.J. Simpson pieces, which do conjure up many memories of the mid-1990’s. 

Buckley is at his funniest from the very beginning of the book, as when he informs us in a piece about summer house guests: “What I have learned is that, just as the most beautiful words in the English language are ‘You’ve lost weight,’ the most dreaded surely are ‘We can only stay for a week.’” 

Buckley sometimes created a bit of a ruckus with his satires. Many people assumed the fictitious books in his piece “The New Fly-Fishing Books,” were real and called bookstores wanting to order them. (This was in 1994, before the days of Google and Amazon.) Sorry, a University of Vermont professor did not write a book called “Bassholes” lambasting bass fisherman. Buckley also caused something of an international incident with his 1991 Forbes magazine piece “Lenin for Sale,” in which he claimed a bankrupt Russia was considering selling the body of Vladimir Lenin. Buckley wrote that interested parties should contact the Russian government, writing “Obviously, the Lenin corpse is not for everyone. But as a conversation piece, it would certainly have no equal.” Somehow, someone at ABC News was tone-deaf enough to not recognize satire, and Peter Jennings reported the story as fact on ABC’s World News Tonight. The next morning, Buckley was besieged by calls. Minister of the Interior Viktor Barannikov did not take it as a joke. As Buckley writes, “The phrases ‘international incident,’ ‘brazen lie,’ and ‘serious provocation’ occurred. I suggested to the BBC that Minister Barannikov ‘chill out.’” Months later, it was reported that the Kremlin was “inundated” with bids for Lenin’s body, ranging from $10,000 to $27 million. 

Another amusing part of the book is Buckley’s “feud” with author Tom Clancy. Their relationship began innocently enough, with Buckley writing a profile of Clancy in 1986, shortly after Clancy had rocketed to best-sellerdom thanks to his first novel “The Hunt for Red October.” But their “feud” began in 1994 when Buckley wrote a very humorous takedown of Clancy’s then-latest book, “Debt of Honor.” Buckley called Clancy a racist, because of his badly stereotyped Japanese characters, and wrote that “Tom Clancy is the James Fenimore Cooper of his day, which is to say, the most successful bad writer of his generation.” Clancy then faxed Buckley back with an insult or two, and Buckley responded in kind. But then the “feud” died down, which was lucky for Clancy, who was no match for Buckley’s razor-sharp wit. 

My favorite section of the book is entitled “Guy Stuff,” and it includes “Driving Through the Apocalypse,” about an Executive Security Training class, which focuses on how to avoid getting kidnapped in a foreign country, and “Macho Is As Macho Does,” in which Buckley reflects on his own macho posturing as a young man, and how “Sometime between eighteen and forty-one I learned something: that the ones who are really tough never act tough.” But the highlight is the wonderfully funny “How I Went Nine G’s in an F-16 and Only Threw Up Five Times,” Buckley’s account about getting to ride along with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. Buckley writes of the pilot he will fly with, “I liked him immediately, but then you bond quickly with someone who is going to fly you upside down at nearly the speed of sound.” To Buckley’s credit, despite getting airsick, he keeps with it, declining the pilot’s offer to not do a nine-G turn. “Dan kept politely insisting that we did not have to do nine Gs, but I had read enough about the Thunderbirds to know that ‘orientation fliers’ such as my sad-ass self are divided into two kinds, those who do nine-G turns, and those who do not.” Buckley did the nine-G turn without passing out, and earned his pin.

Other highlights include “One Way to Do the Amazon,” a 1987 article chronicling a journey down the Amazon with billionaire Malcolm Forbes, “Mom, Fashion Icon,” an affectionate portrait of Buckley’s mother, Patricia Taylor Buckley, and “You Got a Problem?” a profile of the advice columnist Ann Landers.

Perhaps the most personal essay in the book is a 1983 piece titled, “What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? Well, It’s Like This…” about Buckley’s contradictory feelings about being declared 4-F during the Vietnam War. Buckley suffered from asthma and cluster headaches, which sound terribly painful. When the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C. in 1982, Buckley realized that a part of him still felt guilty for not having served his country in Vietnam, even though he considered the war a mistake. The article is an excellent personal essay in which Buckley examines his own thoughts and feelings about the Vietnam War. It’s very well-done, and a nice change of pace from Buckley’s satire.

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