August 15, 2016

Tales from the Completist: "Little Green Men" by Christopher Buckley

(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, we at CCLaP find ourselves sometimes with a desire to become a "completist" of certain authors; that is, to have read every book that author has ever written. This series of essays chronicles that attempt. Don't forget, a list of all the other books reviewed as part of this series can be found on CCLaP's main book review page.)

Little Green Men, by Christopher Buckley

Little Green Men (1999)
By Christopher Buckley
Random House
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Up to this summer, I had read exactly two novels by the master political satirist Christopher Buckley -- his first, Thank You for Smoking, and his latest, The Relic Master -- and they both ended up being so brilliant that I decided that I should probably take the time to read the six other novels he wrote between these two. I just finished the first of that series, which I'm taking on in chronological order, Little Green Men which in this case came out in 1999, three years after Thank You for Smoking; but it unfortunately turned out to be a disappointment compared to the other two. See, while his first novel had such an outrageous concept that it made it easy to picture it actually coming to life (a lobbyist for the tobacco industry has a nervous breakdown, decides his industry should actively embrace the most demonic aspects of their trade, and ends up becoming hugely successful because of it), always the sign of a truly great political satire, in Little Green Men the central concept is only outrageous enough to have inspired a lot of eye-rolling while I was reading it, which made it not nearly as enjoyable an experience. (The idea basically is that the CIA has been the cause of every single UFO sighting since Roswell, originally done as a dirty-trick psych-op to make Stalin paranoid, then continued as a way of assuring big budgets for the military and NASA; after a low-level agent in this shadow department gets passed for a promotion, he drunkenly one night targets a George-Will-type intellectual conservative talk-show host as the newest victim of an "abduction," and his credentials-backed story inspires millions of "millennial-anxious" fellow believers to follow him as the leader of a new cult.)

It's a funny book, make no mistake, with great little moments of pitch-black hilarity and intelligence sprinkled throughout; but it takes a whole lot more suspension of disbelief to picture the ultra-zany plotline actually happening, features weaker characters than in the other two books of his I've read (the love interest invented for our hero is an especially wincing one, in this "white-male political-satirist nerds should never write romantic subplots" kind of way), plus is just a subject that feels like a lot of deliberate machinations went into Buckley choosing it to write about in the first place. (He keeps quoting a statistic throughout the book that showed, as of the late 1990s, supposedly a whopping 80 percent of Americans believed that alien life exists, and this entire novel many times feels like that Buckley randomly came across that poll one day and thought, "Now, how do I build a 300-page story around that fact?") And this of course is always a big danger with satirists as well; that after an accidentally great first novel, their attempts at catching lightning in a bottle again always result in more and more diminishing returns, as the labor they put into finding a good subject for satirizing becomes plainer and plainer to see. I've got a bit of a happy spoiler going for me in this case -- I know that his latest novel from 2016 is truly great, so I can rest assured that the books before that at least aren't going to bottom out into unreadability -- but certainly when I take on his next novel in this series, 2002's No Way to Treat a First Lady (in which a Hillary-Clinton-like character catches her President husband cheating on her, and accidentally kills him inside the White House while whipping an antique spittoon at his head in anger), I'll be going into it with my expectations not set as high this time.

Read even more about Little Green Men: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, August 15, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |