Writing political satire can be difficult. Too many jokes about swift boats or birth certificates can immediately date a novel. On the other hand, too broad a satire feels toothless—there’s no shortage of complaints about politics in general. They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, the latest from Thank You For Smoking and Boomsday author Christopher Buckley, manages to sidestep this issue entirely by not really being satirical at all. Instead of poking fun at the American political process and its propensity for warmongering, it ends up working as an homage to a system that eventually rewards sanity and caution.
The novel doesn’t give that impression as it opens, though. The main character, defense-industry lobbyist Bird McIntyre, gets assigned a new project: inflame the American public and media against China so his employer can sell a top-secret project. McIntyre immediately enlists Angel Templeton, an Ann Coulter-like figure with some semblance of competence, and the two launch a campaign of lies and disinformation that pleases both sensationalists in the American media and hardliners in the Chinese government.
With obvious echoes of the current media saber-rattling campaign against Iran and the deceptions that lead to the Iraq War, They Eat Puppies initially looks like a cynical indictment of the D.C. culture that allows such dysfunction to thrive. Some of this is clever—Templeton is described as an “oreo-con” for being a warmonger hardliner in foreign affairs, and soft on domestic issues—but very little of it is new.
McIntyre and Templeton luck into a controversy when the Dalai Lama is diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly after they plant a story about him being poisoned by the Chinese government. The cynical tone only increases when near-renegade factions in both the Chinese and American governments suggest that their respective spy agencies hurry the Dalai Lama into death. Then a funny thing happens: Two newer bureaucrat point-of-view characters, the director of the American National Security Council and the Chinese head of state, start to dominate the narrative. And these two powerful, rational men work to mitigate the crazies shouting the loudest for confrontation. Suddenly, the grown-ups are in charge.
It’s easy to see a relationship between the writer and the subject in They Eat Puppies. Buckley’s books are often comedies about American politics, and he’s the son of conservative intellectual William F. Buckley, which caused some stir when Christopher Buckley was expelled from the conservative movement for endorsing Barack Obama in the 2008 election. Buckley reasoned that Obama was intelligent, competent, and generally good, which is essentially They Eat Puppies’ theme.
Although They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? isn’t particularly subversive, or especially funny, it still has an old-fashioned charm. The breezy chapters and character quirks make it easy to read, especially in the chapters involving the self-deluding Bird McIntyre. And its faith in political systems’ ability to self-correct—strong, accurate investigative journalism from a major newspaper saves the day!—is downright heartwarming. Such charming naïveté may be more daring than straightforward satire.