By Christopher Buckley
Twelve; 318pp; $24.99
The Good A pitch-perfect political satire treating intergenerational politics.
The Bad The plot is slightly mechanical -- but so what?
The Bottom Line An outrageous spoof of the ways of Washington.
Have you heard the latest proposal out of Washington for fixing the Social Security mess? It's simplicity itself. As the baby boomers shuffle into their sunset years, Uncle Sam will hand them a bundle of juicy tax breaks and assorted perks in return for agreeing to a painless lethal injection at age 65. Too draconian? Not to worry. A second option would give slightly less generous benefits to those who prefer to hang around to age 70.
Given the boomers' well-known love of tax-code manipulation, the idea has a certain irresistible logic. But as you've probably guessed by now, this is not a proposal you'll hear from any of the candidates currently running for top office. Instead, it's a plot device from the latest pitch-perfect political satire from Christopher Buckley. Boomsday follows squarely in the tradition of Thank You for Smoking, Buckley's earlier send-up of the tobacco lobby. Once again, he precisely captures that peculiarly Washingtonian flair for packaging naked self-interest as the national agenda.
Buckley sets his Swiftian tale more or less in the present. President Riley Peacham's foreign policy has devolved into chaos, inflation is spiraling out of control, and the national debt has reached epic proportions. As a beleaguered Fed ratchets interest rates up toward 15%, the body politic grows restless. Enter Cassandra Devine, a 29-year-old Washington public-relations executive by day and diva blogger by night, who rallies otherwise lethargic young Americans to a cause even they can embrace: that of forcing their parents to pay down the debt for their cushy government-subsidized retirements before the bill lands permanently around the younger generation's necks. After driving her frenzied followers into a series of riots outside gated retirement communities, Cassandra hits on the suicide scheme as a way to, as she puts it, get the ungreatest generation to finally give something back.
Cassandra's obsession with the sins of the boomers was sparked by her entrepreneur father who, years earlier, drained her college fund and mortgaged the family home, a fact she discovered just as she got her acceptance letter from Yale. Unabashed, he suggested she instead consider enlisting in the military. (Later, after his dot-com enterprise struck it rich and he embarked on marriage No. 2, he dropped $25 million to persuade the gatekeepers at Yale not to flunk out his drug-addled stepson, Boyd, adding to Cassandra's wrath.)
Cassandra's allies in her crusade are two familiar Washington types. There's her mentor, Terry Tucker, a spinmeister extraordinaire, and Randolph K. Jepperson IV, old-money WASP and junior senator from Massachusetts, who sees in the idea just the sort of out-of-the-box, youth-appealing proposal he needs to jump-start his Presidential bid. ("Cynical" doesn't do Buckley's worldview justice. In a particularly masterful touch, Jepperson confides that he was inspired to pursue a life of public service while dropping acid as a youth in the JFK Presidential library.) Naturally, the pro-life lobby sees Cassandra's novel fix for Social Security as a heaven-sent opportunity to rally the troops. Its spiritual leader, the Reverend Gideon Payne, latches on to the issue as a launch pad for his own campaign for the White House. Now fully wound, the slightly mechanical plot is set tick-tocking on its mostly hilarious way.
Buckley's real subject, of course, is neither Social Security nor intergenerational politics. As in his last novel, the subject is Washington, the place and the process, in all its glorious absurdity. Like all great satire, Boomsday is outrageous, but only slightly more so than real life. In a perfect parody of euphemism-laden bureaucratese, the mass-suicide-for-pay scheme becomes "Voluntary Transitioning." And since this is Congress, by the time the bill wends its way through the Senate it has been buried under a mountain of pork, including tax breaks on Segways for the arthritic and subsidies for Botox injections. Meanwhile, an increasingly desperate President Peacham hands out promises of high-level appointments, ambassadorships, even the Vice-Presidency, like cheap cigars. And inevitably, the Reverend Payne is laid low—by a weakness for Russian prostitutes.
In Buckley's Boomsday universe, everyone is in permanent campaign mode (whether they're running for office or not), endlessly scheming and spinning their way to various tawdry ends. By the conclusion of the book, nothing much has changed among this cast of characters, though plenty has happened along the way. Sort of like Washington itself.
By Mary Kuntz