NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. After Congress kills its super-drone, defense contractor Groepping-Sprunt puts lobbyist Walter Bird Mcintyre on a new project to - as a colleague puts it - gin up a little anti-China mojo.
Bird teams up with the flirty and flamboyant Angel Templeton at the Institute for Continuing Conflict, and they spread a rumor to an Indian newspaper called the Delhi Beast that China tried to poison the Dalai Lama.
Hilarity ensues as Christopher Buckley takes us to the brink of World War III in his new satire. In a moment, the author joins us to discuss both his new work, and we'll also ask about an introduction he wrote to a collection by the great science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, who died last night.
But first, political satire: From Swift to Orwell to "Dr. Strangelove," what's your favorite? 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Later in the program: investigative reporter David Klaidman on President Obama's process to approve the individual human targets in America's drone wars.
But first, Christopher Buckley joins us from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut. His latest: "They Eat Puppies, Don't They?" And thanks very much for joining us today. Nice to have you back.
CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: Good to be with you, Neal. I'm sorry, I just learned from you that my dear Ray Bradbury passed away last night. I - sorry, not a very comic note to start out on, I'm afraid.
CONAN: No, it's not.
BUCKLEY: But what a life and what a legacy, and gee whiz, gee whiz.
CONAN: You - well, we might as well start on that, then. You described him in that introduction you wrote to that collection as a writer's writer. What did you mean by that?
BUCKLEY: Well, what did I mean? What did I mean by that? I meant that he was beloved by writers. And I think a lot of writers started out - I sure did - sort of wanting to be Ray Bradbury. There's a - I wrote that introduction to a collection of his stories, and I started it with a line from - a line of dialogue from the series "Mad Men."
Someone is - Don Draper is sent out to the West Coast, and someone says, well, you know, what's in L.A.? And he says something like sun, pools, Ray Bradbury. It's a little throwaway line, obviously put in there by the writer, duh, of the script. But a little - sort of a little micro-homage, if you will, I think. And I'm very sorry to hear that Ray has passed.
But good Lord, what a life. He - among many other things, he wrote the screenplay to the John Huston movie of "Moby Dick," and wrote a quite marvelous fictionalized memoir of that experience - which you can imagine, you know, spending six or seven or even more months in Ireland with John Houston was not without incident.
But, anyway, I - God rest him, and I'm sure he's up - he's either on Mars happily, or somewhere else in the Celestial Imperium, and I wish him Godspeed. He lived, I know, to a ripe old age. He must have been in his early 90s.
CONAN: Ninety-one. And writers, it's a lonely business, because much of writing is putting your butt in the chair every day.
BUCKLEY: It is, but he delighted in that. I don't think he ever spent a miserable moment in the chair. I think the rest of us probably do, but he was a - you can - the glee just sort of shines through Ray's prose. He was - I won't even say - I was going to say he was a happy warrior, but he wasn't a warrior. He was happy, although his - you know, his - and he was from, I believe, Waukegan, wasn't he?
BUCKLEY: What more quintessentially American cradle could one come from than Waukegan?
CONAN: And a sunny place in some of his stories, and a terrifyingly dark place in others.
BUCKLEY: Yes, yeah. No, he could write terror, but he did even that with a sort of a glad hand. Anyway, I'm - well, it's a heck of a way to learn that a pal of yours has passed on. But I'm sure all America joins me in wishing him Godspeed and in offering condolences to his daughters. He had, I believe, four daughters. Anyway...
CONAN: There will be much more later today on the life and work of Ray Bradbury, so stay tuned for that. But I wanted to ask you, as we mentioned, part of the plot in your latest book "They Eat Puppies, Don't They?" is this seemingly wild attempt to poison the Dalai Lama, a crazy idea. And then after your book goes to press, there's this thinly sourced story about an effort to put poison in the hair of people who are going to go up to be blessed, and he would put it on his hands, and perfectly good satire tops our...
BUCKLEY: You know, it just points out, Neal, the whole pointlessness of satire. I wrapped this book a year ago. This book was done and sent off to the printers, and it was scheduled for publication May 8th, which I thought was, then, a long time off, but I said well, you know, what the heck.
So it comes out - actually, let me give you another beat on it. So it's scheduled for publication May 8th. It's called "They Eat Puppies, Don't They?" On April 18th, the Romney camp, wearying of all the jibes about how he strapped the family Irish setter to the roof when they drove off for a vacation, fired back that, well, at least Governor Romney wasn't eating dogs when he was six and seven years old, the way the president was.
President Obama, having a very reliable sense of humor, sort of, you know, you know, rolled with it and made it a theme of one of his riffs at the White House Correspondents Dinner. So two weeks before my book comes out, the president of the United States and his challenger are sort of, you know, helping me to promote a book called "They Eat Puppies, Don't They?"
So the book comes out May 8th, right, and the central theme is a sort of comic MacGuffin, if you will, of is China actually trying to poison the Dalai Lama or aren't they. On May 13th indeed, Reuters posts a story: Dalai Lama says China tried to poison him.
BUCKLEY: And the - yes. As you note, the assassins - and here it really starts to read like, you know, a bad kung fu movie, or taking - or perhaps like a CIA plot to get rid of Castro.
CONAN: Castro, yeah, the exploding cigar. Yeah.
BUCKLEY: Yeah. And the - remember the scuba diving, the wetsuit that was coated with poison.
CONAN: And they were going to have his hair fall out, his beard.
BUCKLEY: And they were going to have his beard, his beard, because then the Cubans would think him unmanly.
BUCKLEY: You can't make this stuff up. Actually, you can. I did. But anyway, the - yeah, the Dalai Lama's purported assassins were allegedly posed as devotees wanting to have him bless their head by laying his hand on them, and their hair was coated with their deadly poison, sort of Satan's Brylcreem.
BUCKLEY: Do remember the old Brylcreem commercials?
CONAN: A little dab will do you.
BUCKLEY: A little dab will do you. They love to run their fingers through your hair. Anyway, yeah, fact or fiction, why bother? Anyway...
CONAN: Washington, though, has to be among your favorite playgrounds. We played a clip of tape at the beginning where you said you have to have some love for the institutions you mock, and the Institute for Continuing Conflict, I just love that place.
BUCKLEY: The - Bird, my main character, the defense lobbyist who's tasked with - his boss says - he's tasked with fomenting anti-Chinese sentiment in order to get a weapons program through the Congress. And his boss tells him: Bird, it's time to put the red back in Red China.
And so he goes off, and he finds this character named Angel Templeton, and she's a tall, willowy, sexy, mini-skirted, blonde Ph.D. She worked at the Pentagon and the White House. So she knows what she's doing. And she's head of the Institute for Continuing Conflict, which is the head of the Oreo-Con Movement, you know.
BUCKLEY: Oreo-Con, if you will. Walk with me, Neal. It's hard on the outside, parenthesis foreign policy, soft on the inside, domestic policy. The Oreo-Cons don't really care what the president and the Congress do at home, as long as America's involved in wars.
And Bird walks into the lobby of the - I shouldn't be laughing at my own jokes. He walks into this lobby...
CONAN: Somebody has to.
BUCKLEY: Where is the laugh button here? He walks into the lobby at the ICC building, and he looks up, and there's the famous quote from Barry Goldwater: "Extremism of the defense of liberty is no vice." And he goes: Yes. I've come to the right place.
So they plant this rumor. Oreo-Con is, of course, a very witty gloss on the NeoCon movement. You remember those folks, the ones who brought us the Iraq War in 2003, and then when it started to go a little sour, sort of stepped back and went, whoa, don't blame us. You know, the idea was perfectly sound.
Wars - you know, wars - aren't wars supposed to go exactly as planned? I tend to write about things that annoy me. So, anyway...
CONAN: The idea that we're posing to our listeners today is to tell us the political satire they most admire through history. You must have read, well, the standard ones, certainly Swift and Orwell. And it's clear in this book there's almost an homage to "Dr. Strangelove."
BUCKLEY: Yes, indeed. And it's such an homage, that I thought I'd better say so in the author's note at the back. I say, you know, people - there are a lot of phone conversations in the book, and to me, the greatest parts of "Dr. Strangelove" - which I esteem as the greatest satirical movie ever made - is that phone call from - that President Merkin Muffley places to the Soviet president. You remember? Hello? Hello, Dmitry? Could you turn the music down?
BUCKLEY: Now, then, Dmitry. The ones - and there's something about the one - hearing one side of a desperate phone call that is - that can be a marvelous comic device. And so there are a number of those in the book. And I absolutely state my plagiarism in the author's note. Anyway, I couldn't resist.
CONAN: If there was one book that you would cite as something you admired in the way of political satire, what would that be?
BUCKLEY: Well - I don't - it's - it might be a stretch to call it political satire, but certainly Evelyn Waugh's "Scoop" is the book that I kind of keep close by. And when I despair - which I do about every quarter-hour - I pick that up and sort of read a few pages. Yeah, I suppose you could think of it as a political satire, but...
CONAN: It involved journalism and war. Why not? Yes.
BUCKLEY: Yeah, why not? Why not?
CONAN: We're talking with Christopher Buckley about his latest political satire, "They Eat Puppies, Don't They?" We'll talk more about that book and go to your calls in just a moment. Stay with us. What political satire do you most admire? 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking with political satirist Christopher Buckley. In the prologue to his latest book, he introduces us to the massive armed drone the size of a jumbo jet nicknamed Dumbo and to the lobbyist who named it, Bird Macintyre.
He writes: The name was his suggestion. If the idea is to render a breathtakingly large and lethal killing machine sound less lethal, what better name than the Disney's cuddly pachyderm. Bird had considered Cuddles, but that seemed a bit much.
The book is called "They Eat Puppies, Don't They?," and that excerpt sets the satirical tone for the rest of the novel. You can read more of the back story on Dumbo at our website, npr.org.
We'd like to hear more about your favorite political satire, from Swift to Orwell to "Dr. Strangelove," 800-989-8255. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. And Christopher Buckley is with us from WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut. And let's see if we can go first to Mike(ph), and Mike's with us from Charlotte.
CONAN: You're on the air, Mike, go ahead.
MIKE: Yes, I think my favorite goes all the way back, you keep mentioning him as you got through Swift, Orwell is Swift, go back right to the very beginning. Without Swift, we don't have Orwell, we don't have Bradbury. We have to have the foundation. We have to have "Gulliver's Travels" before we have everything else that comes after it.
I love the fact that everyone knows books one and two, everybody sees the little Lilliputians, and everyone knows the book where Gulliver is the little person, and he goes to the land of the Brobdingnagians. But not a lot of people know about books three and books four, where he visits the floating island of Laputa, or he visits the Yahoos, and he visits the Houyhnhnms, and that gets kind of biting, and that gets pretty vicious.
And at the end of it, how very anthropomorphic. I mean, Gulliver is sitting in his own stables at home waiting for his own horses to speak, and he doesn't even want - he doesn't even want the company of men.
BUCKLEY: Do you remember the name of the horses?
MIKE: They were Houyhnhnms.
BUCKLEY: Yeah, it's impossible to spell, but I like...
MIKE: I (unintelligible) professor who said he would give someone an A if they could spell it.
MIKE: And I'm remembering now, I couldn't tell you what it is right now, but I memorized it, and at the bottom of my midterm exam spelled it right and then off to the side wrote: So there.
CONAN: And did you get an A?
MIKE: I think I did.
BUCKLEY: You know, there's - Mike, you mentioned Laputa. There's a little embedded homage to Swift in the movie "Dr. Strangelove," where you remember Slim Pickens plays Colonel Kong, who is piloting the lead B52, and they're hit by a missile, so they have to proceed to a secondary target. Do you remember the name of it? Laputa.
BUCKLEY: Yeah, that can't be coincidental.
CONAN: Mike, thanks very much.
MIKE: You're welcome, thank you.
CONAN: It's interesting, going on about "Strangelove," that movie was based on a book that told the same story absolutely straight-faced called "Red Alert."
BUCKLEY: Indeed by Peter George. It was rather completely revised by Terry Southern and Stanley Kubrick, but Peter George's name does indeed appear on the credits. But you're right, it's an absolutely non-satirical, non-comical account of something like this.
CONAN: It was an early version of the kind of thriller that Bird, your protagonist in your latest book, the kind of thriller that he's writing.
BUCKLEY: Bird is - he has a - his great passion is writing - he's writing a trilogy of sort of Tom Clancy-esque novels called - "The Armageddon Trilogy." He keeps renaming them. They all have sort of Robert Ludlum-esque titles, "The Armageddon Infiltration," The Armageddon Exfiltration," and I think the last one is "The Armageddon Immolation."
You may remember our late friend Christopher Hitchens loved to tell the story of a boozy night with his great pal Salman Rushdie, and they devised this - a sort of little parlor game of renaming Shakespearean plays or imagining that Shakespearean plays had been titled by Robert Ludlum.
And so Christopher said to Salman "Hamlet," and apparently, so the story goes, without a second's hesitation, Salman Rushdie said "The Elsinore Vacillation."
BUCKLEY: Oh God, I wish I could do that.
CONAN: Let's go to another caller. This is Bob(ph), Bob with us from Livermore in California.
BOB: Hi, I just finished reading "The Big U" by Neal Stephenson, and I liked that because I think a lot of what is thought of as - I think there's some confusion about - between parody and satire. And "The Big U" is a great example of a satire because it wasn't afraid to go to sort of its logical conclusion, which was very extreme, an entire, you know, university completely implodes.
But it just - it was fearless in the way that it led to that ending.
BUCKLEY: Who wrote the book, Bob? I'm sorry to...
BOB: It was Neal Stephenson. I think it may have been one of his first novels.
CONAN: It is I think his first novel. He's better known for "Cryptonomicon" and "Snow Crash," which I loved "Snow Crash."
BOB: Yeah, and it starts sort of as a parody of college life, and it just gets so completely, aggressively absurd and then ridiculous, and it just, it all comes flying apart. But it all makes perfect sense, and that's what I liked about it.
CONAN: Well, thanks, Bob, for the call, which raises a question, Christopher Buckley. You start with a premise and then get more and more absurd. Where's the line? Cuddles was going too far in terms of the naming of Dumbo. Is there too far for you?
BUCKLEY: There is. I guess it's - do you remember Potter Stewart's famous definition of pornography?
CONAN: I know it when I see it.
BUCKLEY: I know it when I see it.
BUCKLEY: I - my stuff tends to be a little over the top, but I do try to pull back just from the edge to the top. If you go off the cliff into, you know, complete absurdity, I think you - well, to me, you sort of lose something. I don't know that - I mean, we talked at the top of the hour, as you radio people would say...
CONAN: As we would say.
BUCKLEY: About, you know...
CONAN: We're now towards the bottom of the hour.
BUCKLEY: Here's the book premised about - yeah, now as we head toward the bottom of the hour. Here's a book premised on a plot to kill the Dalai Lama, and what news story do we get five days later? Beijing has been trying to assassinate me with people with poisonous Brylcreem on their hair. So you tell me what's over the top.
It's - do you remember Yogi Berra's famous reply when he was told that a Jewish lady had been elected mayor of Dublin?
CONAN: I did not know. No, go ahead.
BUCKLEY: Only in America.
BUCKLEY: It's hard to - it's increasingly hard to pinpoint what exactly in America is satire and what's real.
CONAN: Let's go next to Cathy(ph), Cathy with us from Forestville in Virginia.
CATHY: Hi, how are you doing?
CONAN: Good, thanks.
CATHY: You know, you know, I'm going to go way, way back because the first thing I thought of when you said satirical writing was some writings from Washington Irving. And this is something, you know, in one of our - anthology books we had to read in college. But he had this part in - called "From A History of New York." And he goes in, and he's talking about how, in a very satirical way, you know, the way that we came in, the European settlers came in and decided that there really weren't any people here at all after all.
I mean, just because there's, you know, animals standing in an upright position and sort of speaking what might be called a language, but, you know, they're not people. So he goes, OK, well, what about - I've been reading it while I was waiting for you - what if the man in the moon came along? What if the man in the moon looked down at us and said, well, these things do weird things. They're not real, they're not people.
So he went into the satirical, you know, of how we mistreated other races, and I just thought that was the greatest thing I ever read.
CONAN: I - go ahead, Christopher.
CATHY: You make me want to go back and reread that.
CONAN: Like most people, I think I have only read "The Legend of Sleepy Hallow."
CATHY: Yeah, yeah, and his "Rip Van Winkle," yeah, but this - I mean, he is a good writer. I really enjoyed that. That was - you know, I even read it, didn't even have to, and I read it.
BUCKLEY: He was America's - if I'm not mistaken, he was sort of America's first celebrated writer, first what we would call sort of today a bestseller, although he was fairly quickly eclipsed by Fenimore Cooper, James Fenimore Cooper. But he still holds up. And I also commend to you he's - remember, he was our ambassador to Spain, Washington Irving. He was - they didn't call him ambassador. He was our minister. And while he was there, he lived - he spent some months at the Alhambra. And I commend to you his wonderful volume of "Tales of the Alhambra," which is not satirical.
CONAN: Cathy, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
CATHY: You're welcome.
CONAN: And Fenimore Cooper, of course, his great books set in the wild west of the Catskills.
BUCKLEY: That's right. The western frontier.
CONAN: Yeah, in those days. Very...
BUCKLEY: Who knew?
CONAN: Yeah. Let's go next...
BUCKLEY: It's the California of its day.
CONAN: Mindy(ph) is on the line with us from Jacksonville. Mindy, are you there?
MINDY: I am. I hear you now. I'm on my cellphone.
CONAN: OK. Go ahead, please.
MINDY: I just wanted to mention Kurt Vonnegut. He is an author I continuously rediscover.
CONAN: And which one in particular?
MINDY: "Player Piano," set in the future where people are replaced by machines. I don't know if any of his books specifically qualify as political satire in their entirety, but he likes to sprinkle it liberally throughout most of his books.
CONAN: Throughout almost all of them. "The Sirens of Titan" has always been one of my favorites. So, Christopher Buckley, is he a favorite of yours?
BUCKLEY: Yeah. I actually reviewed his - the biography that came out about Kurt. He - the label that he resisted and resisted militantly was that of being a science fiction writer. He hate, he just hated being thought of as a science fiction writer, but he was rather stuck with it, I'm afraid. But some of Kurt's stuff was very, very satirical and savagely good. I'm thinking of - what was the novel in which he introduced Ice-nine, do you remember? Was that...
CONAN: Was that "Cat's Cradle?"
BUCKLEY: It was - right you are. It was "Cat's Cradle," yeah, yeah. "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," "Breakfast of Champions." In - I mentioned in my review of the biography what his current sales figures are. And his book "Slaughterhouse-Five," which is, you know, his novel based on his experiences as a German prisoner of war in Dresden during the fire bombing, not much fun there. They sell about 60, 70,000 copies a year. That's pretty good. That, I think, you know, destines him for literary immortality.
CONAN: Mindy, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
MINDY: You're welcome. Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with Christopher Buckley about political satire and about his new book, an example, "They Eat Puppies, Don't They?" You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And it's interesting, it brings us at around back to Ray Bradbury, who preferred to be called a fantasy writer than a science fiction writer, and it was a time when both he and Vonnegut came up in the '50s when science fiction was largely derided as it pretty much is today. And it was Theodore Sturgeon who said the famous Sturgeon's law, 94 percent of everything is garbage. I don't think garbage was his actual word.
BUCKLEY: The word that must not be mentioned.
CONAN: One of the many, yes. I think one of the seven.
BUCKLEY: I don't know. You know, the - it may be a - as a genre, it may be thought up as sort of a debased genre. I think satire itself is. I came across this sort of haunting, to me anyway, quote by Somerset Maugham. And it goes like this, he said: Make people laugh and they will think you a trivial fellow, but bore them in the just the right way and your success is assured.
BUCKLEY: I think I've been going about this all wrong.
CONAN: Here is a couple of tweets we have from Claudia Hartley(ph): How about the works of Aristophanes? And Philip(ph)...
BUCKLEY: Oh, yeah.
CONAN: ...Walter says: What abut Mark Twain's "Letters from the Earth?"
BUCKLEY: Well, Aristophanes - good for you, Claudia - I think he can probably lay claim to being the earliest satirist that we know about. "The Frogs" is his play. "The Frogs" which - in fact, I can quote you a line from it. It goes like this: brekekekek cowack, cowack(ph). That's my imitation of Aristophanes imitating a frog.
BUCKLEY: It's a very elevated conversation we're having here, Neal.
CONAN: I can understand...
BUCKLEY: And Mark Twain, well, good heavens. It goes without saying. A great - it's surprising how many authors could be considered. It's an elastic term, satire. Take Tom Wolfe's great - really truly great novel, perhaps his masterpiece in a field full of great books, "Bonfire of the Vanities." You could - that could, I think, be considered a satire, too, but it, you know, it could also just be - it could be considered dramatic fiction. But is it automatically satire if it makes us laugh? Probably not so. That might be a too elastic a definition of it.
CONAN: Is satirist, though, one of those genre labels that you would try to flee from and describe yourself as a comic novelist?
BUCKLEY: Well, no. The one I flee from is humorist, which - I mean, does a humorist practice humorism? It - if you're introduced as a humorist, people will stare at you and either they say out loud or you can hear them thinking, make me laugh. You're a humorist. Make me laugh. A satirist, less so. You know, writer or hack novelist is good enough for me.
CONAN: It was interesting. In The Washington Post this morning they had one of those surveys of prominent people saying, what are they going to be reading this summer when they get a break on vacation? And it was curious that Chris Matthews said "They Eat Puppies, Don't They?" Will he be surprised to find out that he appears in that book as himself?
BUCKLEY: Oh, that rascal. Well, there's a cast of characters at the front of the book, and other - one of the characters who is listed in the cast of characters is Chris Matthews, taciturn TV host. So right away, you know it's fiction, right?
CONAN: Thanks very much for being with us today.
BUCKLEY: Good to be with you, Neal.
CONAN: Christopher Buckley, a political satirist, not a humorist, and he's the author most recently of "They Eat Puppies, Don't They?" He joined us from WSHU, our member station in Fairfield, Connecticut. Up next, a day after government officials say a drone strike killed al-Qaida's number two, we'll get an inside look at the covert U.S. drone war and how the president came to embrace targeted killings. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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