Tom Wolfe recently told a group of journalists that politics has become so odd that fiction faces a real challenge. How can an author make stuff up when the news is almost always a step ahead?
This question looms above Christopher Buckley's Boomsday like an anvil yo-yo, dropping mercilessly (and regularly) over the reader's head. In the fictional "Boomsday," (which follows a critically acclaimed film version of Buckley's "Thank You for Smoking,") the author orchestrates an elaborate war between the ends of the voting-age spectrum: the baby boomers and the U30s (under 30s), aka Generation Whatever.
Set in a not-so-distant future, "Boomsday" is the story of Cassandra Devine, a 29-year-old blogger who commands America's youth through her digital rants. Incensed by the self-serving lifestyle of the boomer generation, who, in her view do little more than drain Social Security and pass on debt, Cassandra urges her peers to march on retirement communities.
If that weren't enough, her plan to save Social Security by offering incentives for seniors to kill themselves finds a supporter in Congress, an upper-crust Massachusetts senator, who, while tripping on acid in his 20s, decided he would one day become president.
It's outrageous and it's offensive; satire in a take-no-prisoners, Swiftian style, and that's exactly what Buckley wants. To him, modern politics is a farce in which the follies portrayed in "Boomsday" are all too possible.
And that's not all: the president has the foulest mouth, immigrants compete for a green card in a race across the border, Wal-Mart opens a store on the National Mall, and the vice president shoots a lawyer. (Wait, didn't that last one actually happen?)
Whatever fictional future the book is set in, there are plenty of references to wars, a growing deficit, and a fascination with understanding the young generation. In Buckley's book, most politicians are fictional, while most media types are real-life establishment figures of our time.
This odd choice leaves "Boomsday" in a sort of stylistic limbo, at times working as a fictional satire of modern-day politics in general and then in other places as a kind of bitter op-ed page commentary on the current administration. When Buckley is content to stick to political satire in general, "Boomsday" moves at a rapid pace and the comedy is spot on, as in the fact-finding trip Randolph Jepperson IV, the Massachusetts congressman, takes to Bosnia. After a series of mishaps, Jepperson gets his leg blown off and becomes a national hero. Looming over every campaign rally he appears at thereafter is the prospect that he might shake his prosthetic limb to energize his base.
But when Buckley dabbles in recent events, the jokes are far less inspired. In one particularly unfunny sequence, Cassandra lands in jail and hangs out with a prison gang of journalists that call themselves "The Pulitzer Nation."
Equally unsuccessful is Buckley's stretched attempt to capture young America, a faceless entity that blogs, gets its news from comedy shows, uses "whatever" as a response to anything, and doesn't care for politics unless a candidate makes the "F" word a part of his campaign slogan.
Satire works when an author understands his target, but Buckley seems to be still too fascinated with tech-savvy youth to mock it very effectively. It's hardly news that the "end" button on cell phones has become the "new hang-up." And "whatever" was the "it" word of the mid-1990s, not 2007.
"Boomsday" hints at Buckley's nostalgia for an era of unscripted politicos with gigantic egos who could drive armored vehicles into minefields, shoot friends, or grope aides in the halls of the Senate. Politics filtered through media handlers is redundant spin, and read in that key, "Boomsday" could well be a manifest against the hypocrisy of power.
"The anthems from my revolution are now background music in TV commercials for cholesterol pills, onboard navigation systems for gas-guzzling SUVs and hedge funds," Terry Tucker, Cassandra's boss, laments darkly at one point.
If this is Buckley speaking to his Generation Whatever, then it sounds as if he hopes the apathetic beast will rise and wreck havoc, hurl Molotov cocktails at golfers, and advocate overthrowing the government in a televised talk show.
But if this is really an honest plea, it is trapped in a book written by an author who is part of the establishment of politicians, spinsters, and pundits it attempts to mock.
That's hardly the seed of a revolution.
• Cristian Lupsa is a former Monitor intern.