They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? By Christopher Buckley. Corsair, 2012. 336 pp. £11.99. ISBN: 978 1 78033 672 5.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. By Ben Fountain. Canongate, 2012. 309pp. £16.99. ISBN: 978 0 85786 438 3.
In The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel, literary critic James Wood countered comedy’s being “awarded the prize of ineffability” by those who underestimate the “possibilities of [its] exegesis.” “Tragicomic stoicism,” or “the comedy of forgiveness…of laughing with,” and “the comedy of correction…a way of laughing at” are salient categories of humor in the novel, he argued. The antiheroes of the two novels under consideration here, Christopher Buckley’s They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, exemplify these types of comedy in their struggles with artifice and duplicity, eliciting readers’ mockery and empathy respectively.
A veteran humorist best known for Thank You For Smoking and Florence of Arabia, Buckley has written a wickedly ludic eleventh novel featuring Walter “Bird” McIntyre, a nebbishy Washington defense lobbyist. The marked contrast between Bird’s delusions of grandeur and his professional foibles shape the novel’s humor. Devoting himself to the study of China, Bird seeks an “unnerving specter” to upend America’s “coma of complacency.” Former Goldwater girl Angel Templeton, a neo-conservative sylph, proves an able co-conspirator. The title They Eat Puppies refers to her sheer hatred of China for its Communism and “cozy[ing] up to loathsome regimes like North Korea.” When Bird persuades her that the purported threat of the Chinese secret service putting “radioactive pellets in [the] yak butter” of “the Dalai Lama…a seventy-five-year-old sweetie pie with glasses, plus the sandals and the saffron robe and the hugging and the mandalas and the peace and harmony and the reincarnation and nirvana” will incense the American public and help win Congressional approval for a secret weapons program, she helps propagate the rumor, ensnaring them in lies that Bird is not clever enough to uphold.
The black comedy of They Eat Puppies is both situational and narrative. In a roguish pastiche of Rabelais, Buckley describes Bird’s family and fortunes as “a trophy wife, candelabra-wielding mother, staircase-threatening caregiver, saber-wielding brother, dentally and mentally challenged caretaker, crumbling house, money-sucking mortgage, [and] dwindling bank account.” The narration is a kind of sustained persiflage, in which Bird, a modern-day Bloom, is repeatedly ridiculed for his deranged family and impecunious circumstances. His wife Myndi, an equestrienne, has a cell phone ring tone like “Valkyrie hooves pound[ing] on his cerebellum.” Her pedigreed horses are a drain on Bird’s coffers, their bloodlines “hideously expensive genetic tendencies.” His brother is a practitioner of “living history,” a euphemism for the ribald behavior and strange costumes associated with his Civil War re-enactments. Even Bird’s properties have nicknames: Upton, the estate, is “Upkeep,” while the condo is a “Military-Industrial Duplex,” a perversion of Dwight Eisenhower’s famous farewell address advocating caution in the exercise of the “unwarranted influence” afforded by weapons.
Pity the hapless Bird, whose only escape is to toil by night at his quartet of unpublished novels. Yet his circumstances, and the collusion in his professional sphere, are entirely of his own making. Therein lies the contrast between comedies of correction like They Eat Puppies, where the protagonist’s fallibility invites ridicule, and comedies of forgiveness like Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, where the main character, a low-ranking soldier at the mercy of his regiment’s leaders, his countrymen, and his family when he returns from a first tour of duty in Iraq, strives to elicit compassion.
Enter “bleary” Billy Lynn, a nineteen-year-old specialist in the U.S. Army’s Bravo regiment. Hailing from a dysfunctional family in Stovall, Texas (an adulterous, disabled father, an overwrought mother, and a critically injured, hyper-sensitive sister), he is “too young” and “doesn’t know enough”—the epitome of “tragicomic stoicism.” When his sister’s fiancé jilts her, he takes a crowbar to the fellow’s car, and, on pain of a felony charge, agrees to join the army. One day, the Bravos are assailed by gunfire from Iraqi insurgents, and Billy earns decorations for his vain attempt to save a fellow soldier’s life. The Bush administration sponsors a “Victory Tour” to recognize the regiment’s collective bravery. Greeted, photographed and feted by hawkish Americans, honored at a Dallas Cowboys football game, where Destiny’s Child performs at halftime, the Bravos are encouraged to work with a Hollywood producer on a documentary film featuring the brawny Hilary Swank as one of the soldiers.
Carnivalesque in its setup (like Bird’s), it is actually a comedy of forgiveness for Billy, an ordinary teenager seeking camaraderie with his fellow soldiers, a girlfriend, and safety from the battlefield—elemental, private forms of contentment and security, rather than the honors of the public stage. Billy considers the celebrations “sham, … spin, bullshit, … duplicity, puff, evasion, cant, and bald-faced lies,” as the public is ignorant of the grim realities of war—fear of defeat and death, harsh weather conditions, separation from their families. To his mind, their glorification of the Bravos amounts to hideous sensationalism, artifice, and camp.
Overly ambitious in its use of visual “arabesques” (words scattered across the page, like those of Lewis Carroll) and verbal pyrotechnics that recall James Joyce (words like “terrRist,” “nina leven,” “Eye-rack,” and “currj,” spelled phonetically), the novel ultimately deters the reader’s compassion toward Billy, whose condescension toward his fellow Americans and their picayune concerns becomes grating. He “can’t help but regard [them] as children…bold and proud and certain in the way of clever children blessed with too much self-esteem.” The voices of the other characters are poorly distinguished from one another, and lacking in nuance. Their words, “whirl and tumble around [Billy’s] brain,” where they are filtered and distorted. While we are told of their “pedestrian thoughts” and they are portrayed as “well-fed ruminants…harsh…avid, ecstatic” with “the luxury of terror as a talking point,” they are not given enough of a chance to express their thoughts at length, without Billy’s own reactions interceding. Hardly a reliable narrator, Billy is wracked by post-traumatic stress (“gnarled, secret funk,”) fear, the haze of alcohol, lust for a Cowboys cheerleader, and woeful inarticulateness (his feelings are “ineffable whatever.”) Such mediation, in the service of narrative omniscience, is in itself a kind of “duplicity, puff” or “evasion,” an insincerity rivaling that of the characters Billy mocks.
And so these novels, wrought from similar comedic fabric—that of a hapless, bumbling Everyman facing the gullibility (or duplicity) of the American public—dovetail. While Buckley’s buffoonish Bird retains a measure of hope for his novelistic pursuits and professional well-being, Fountain’s Billy remains a tragicomic figure, bound to a second tour of duty in Iraq. His portrait of army life recalls Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse”: “you fuck up, they scream at you, you fuck up some more…but overlying all the small, petty, stupid, basically foreordained fuckups looms the ever-present prospect of the life-fucking fuckup, a fuckup so profound and all-encompassing as to crush all hope of redemption.”
This piece was published in the February 1, 2013 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, with the title “Funny ha ha” (click on the link to see the table of contents and proof).