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June 20, 2007

Christopher Buckley gives us West Wing with the liberal-worship stripped out - and manages to make euthanasia funny, says Richard D. North: Boomsday - Christopher Buckley

Posted by Richard D. North

by Christopher Buckley
Pp. 318. Twelve Books, 2007
Hardback, $24.99

I picked up Boomsday, the latest novel by Christopher Buckley, because I loved the film of his book, Thank You For Smoking [which I reviewed here]. I say this by way of apology for not having read the man before. Indeed, I couldn't help reading Boomsday as though it was a movie proposal, wondering if it would make a film of the quality of the other. The answer's surely yes.

We are on familiar territory. Terry Tucker is a spin doctor who learned his skills from Nick Naylor of the Tobacco Institute, whom we met in TYFS. Time has passed and we are in the near future. The Baby Boomers, born in the decade or so after 1946, are retiring in droves and the US social security system is bankrupt. The country is also at war with nearly everyone. The deficit is colossal, interest rates have soared and inflation's running wild. Terry has a young female colleague, Cassandra Devine, who has had to be in the Army for a spell, since her father - who went on to be an internet billionaire - blew her education savings plan on his IPO. Whilst in the Army, she got involved with an ex-druggie blueblood, Randolph K Jepperson, whose leg was blown off whilst driving her in a Bosnian minefield in the course of looking for somewhere decent to eat. He's gone into politics, and it's a business she is about to redefine for him.

The scene is much more crowded than that. Buckley has a roll-call of eccentrics and poseurs which may not be quite Dickensian, but is more colourful - more redolent of the mad theatricality of public life - than we have any right to hope for. But it is Cassandra who catches the eye and ear. She is beautifully done. She is cross with her parents' generation not merely for having spent the money and needing a state top-up, but for having had the fun and drama of being the luckiest generation ever to have lived. They had the événements, her coevals get the ennui. This portrait seems true of some modern young, and the idea of an intergenerational war is borne out by what one reads of the rather bitter biography of the novelist A. M. Homes. It is certainly now the theme of endless pieces, for instance by Bryan Appleyard in the Sunday Times Magazine.

In retaliation, Cass whips up a popular movement amongst the otherwise politically apathetic twenty- and thirty-somethings. Her boss thinks she does so because she's read too much Ayn Rand and is fiercely into personal responsibility. (One day, I'll read the great lady, and it'll probably be because Rand is about to impersonated on screen by Helen Mirren.) Cass proposes that there should be tax-breaks and other incentives for senior Baby Boomers who top themselves. Since suicide's an ugly word, the process is called "Transitioning".

This may be the moment to say that Boomsday's flaw is that its humour is sometimes sloppy and over-done. There isn't quite enough control around. Oddly, this makes the story's roller-coaster rather falter - one has pauses where there should be sweep. So Buckley is not a Waugh (for all the fun to be had about American attitudes to death), and still less a rapier in the manner of Nabokov or a Heller. He isn't even a Ms Homes, whose American satires are so poignant. But he makes up for a certain novelistic crudeness by being wonderfully good on Washington's echelons of power. The jokes are all politically incorrect and yet there's heart too. And that's the trick isn't it: to make the bad guys more loveable than the good? This is West Wing with the worst of the liberal-worship stripped out. Oddly, you may say, Buckley does seem to believe that the corporate world is sort of evil or at least tedious. He is to that extent a fairly conventional snob, one suspects. You can't have everything.

Boomsday's big move is to give us a dystopia, and to make it a believable scenario. Buckley achieves this by making it part of the story that no-one, and certainly not its main protagonists, believe that Transitioning will really catch on. It's a political kite, flown for the debating point that gets made.

Still, it's a very good kite. It marries up rather well with a proposal made a few years ago by Samuel Brittan to the effect that the finances of the welfare state or insurance packages would be much improved if over a certain age one could expect - or was it, elect? - to be randomly selected for a merciful death. It may have been a joke, I forget now what method of execution was proposed, though licensing sharpshooters has a certain ricochet to it. I think Brittan's idea was to institutionalise and slightly accelerate the natural riskiness of life and death, and to make it work actuarially. This would also fit rather well with the idea of euthanasia and other terminal choices which ought to come very naturally to a Boomer generation which has always been comfortable with making their own reality, whether with substances or abortions or mass escapism.

The Boomer generation has a firm belief that one should be able to have what one wants, when one wants it. Why not death? Indeed, since I have been feckless in my provision for the future, I find comfort in the idea that a pocket full of pebbles and a pier could get me out of nearly any scrape. Of course, both the Buckley and the Brittan scheme depend on authorities being very draconian: even if you could get people to sign up for Transitions, most of us would surely opt out of them towards the end if we could. Someone would have to employ Securicor or the Paras to finish us off. Rich comedy there, of course.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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