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Supreme Courtship
Supreme Courtship
Christopher Buckley
Twelve, 2008
285 pp., 24.99

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by John Wilson

Supreme Courtship

A prescient satire by novelist Christopher Buckley.

President Donald P. Vanderkamp, the most winsome fictional chief executive since David Palmer was assassinated several seasons ago on 24, has a problem. There's a vacancy on the Supreme Court—or so goes the not-implausible premise of Christopher Buckley's delectable entertainment, Supreme Courtship. ("Supreme Court Associate Justice J. Mortimer Brinnin's deteriorating mental condition had been the subject of talk for some months now, but when he showed up for oral argument with his ears wrapped in aluminum foil, the consensus was that the time had finally come to retire.") Vanderkamp has put forward two superbly qualified candidates, each of them rejected in turn by the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Relentless opposition research on the first candidate reveals that as a 12-year-old, he wrote a review of the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird for his elementary school newspaper in which he observed that, "Though the picture is overall OK, it's also kind of boring," leading the powerful chair of the committee, Senator Dexter Mitchell—who himself covets a spot on the High Court—to recall the specter of the Ku Klux Klan.)

Inspiration strikes Vanderkamp one night at Camp David, as he is channel-surfing in search of a bowling tournament. He stumbles on Courtroom Six, a highly rated show (though new to him) in the Judge Judy vein, starring a stunning native Texan named Pepper Cartwright. He likes her down-to-earth judicial style. He likes her altogether. And he decides to make her his next nominee for the Supreme Court.

Here we should pause to note that, while novels rarely play any part in national affairs, I think it's entirely possible that Buckley's novel—published in September, but available in galleys several months earlier—gave John McCain (or someone in his inner circle, who brought it to McCain's attention) the idea of choosing Sarah Palin to be his running-mate. Not that Sarah Palin and Pepper Cartwright are identical. For starters, Pepper is an atheist, more or less, the daughter of a loony but immensely successful TV evangelist, while Palin is a conservative evangelical, more or less, representing a segment of the American populace that Buckley seems to loathe (about which more below). Still, as wild cards the two are remarkably similar. Maybe there was no causal connection between the novel and the vice-presidential nomination. Whether or not there was, Buckley intuited—before the fact—something in the air that made the Palin phenomenon possible.

But that's merely an aside—it is not the book's principal claim on our attention. Funny writers in general and satirists in particular rarely get their due as writers. Of course there are exceptions. Tom Wolfe is noticed in at least some accounts of contemporary fiction. But what about Richard Dooling, Carl Hiaasen, Christopher Buckley?

So who cares? Let the literati carry on with their tea party. A tea party, by the way, where many of the invited guests are Subversive. They have identification badges to prove it.

Well. We should care. All fiction exists in a kind of tension between two poles. On the one hand, all fiction is "escape fiction." Raymond Chandler's dissection of the cozy English murder mystery was very witty, but his own splendid books are every bit as stylized—and every bit as remote from "real life," crudely construed. On the other hand, all fiction, from the naturalism of Zola to the self-contained drollery of P. G. Wodehouse, involves us in a rather mysterious transaction with the Real.

Satire works out this tension in a distinctive way. Satire is loaded with particulars of time and place and speech and custom, which is why it often dates very quickly. (My recollection is that the notes to The Dunciad were considerably longer than the poem itself, and still much remained obscure.) A novel by Christopher Buckley is rather like a seminar in Cultural Studies, but a good deal more fun. Satire immerses the reader in the thick, kitschy stuff of the Zeitgeist: palpably, almost suffocatingly "real." And yet at the same time, the satirist is the Man Who Sees Through Everything. (The foremost occupational hazard of the satirist's profession is a bleak nihilism, often masked by a dreadful jokeyness.) The effect is at once entertaining and destabilizing.

Adding to this effect are the idiosyncrasies of any given satirist. You can't be a satirist if you find only Democrats (or only Republicans) ridiculous, while their opposite numbers strike you as models of good sense and rectitude. (You could be a speechwriter, though, or a columnist.) At the same time, you wouldn't be a satirist in the first place if you regarded humankind and its follies with serene impartiality. The flavor of any one satirist will depend on the way he or she balances the mandate to mock wherever mockery is deserved against strong personal inclinations and disinclinations.

In a C-Span interview with Charles Kesler, the urbane editor of The Claremont Review of Books, occasioned by Supreme Courtship, Buckley deprecates himself and his work. I'm an entertainer, he says. Yes, he is, and that's no small thing—the sheer gift of diversion at the end of a long day is not to be despised—but this "I'm just an entertainer" line is a shtick. Along with a great deal of entertainment, he has also given us, in a series of novels mostly centered on Washington, an account of our life and times that Balzac would have appreciated.

Buckley's last four novels—No Way to Treat a First Lady, Florence of Arabia, Boomsday, and now Supreme Courtship—have featured women as protagonists. To be the protagonist of a satiric novel is a strange gig. You are a bit of a caricature, of course (though isn't Anna Karenina too, finally, and Jane Eyre?), and yet even though everything in your story (including the patently absurd names of the "characters" who share the stage with you, and the author's broadly comical footnotes) conspires to shatter the suspension of disbelief, the reader cares about you, thinks of you—for the span of the book—as a "person" of sorts. This has allowed Buckley to turn his sharp eye on the ways that men condescend to and variously mistreat women (maybe also increasing the number of women who read his books) without in the least blunting his instinct for what will stir the heterosexual male animal. These books also feature, as a kind of running subplot, sympathetic gay characters.

While Buckley's take on America under George W. Bush exposes rogues and fools of many different stripes, his most visceral loathing appears to be reserved for the sort of people lumped under the heading "the Religious Right." (Boomsday devotes a good deal of its ridicule to the pro-life camp.) Some of these targets are painted as hypocrites—not just holier-than-thou busybodies but downright charlatans—while others are terminally clueless. How much Buckley's loss of faith, the Catholic faith of his family—described poignantly in one of his father's memoirs—factors into this disdain is hard to say. After all, many strongly committed Christians of one kind or another share his sentiments.

I don't know if it is only my perception, but it seems to me that over the last several books, a bit of the joie de vivre has leaked out of Buckley's fiction. Not that Supreme Courtship is in any way perfunctory. But perhaps there isn't quite as much of the contagious good humor that enlivened earlier books. Satirists, it's true, often grow increasingly grim as they age, and many of them—Jonathan Swift, Flann O'Brien, Evelyn Waugh—suffer bouts of madness. Then again, many schoolteachers and insurance agents grow increasingly grim as the years tick on, and "madness" (called by other names these days) is hardly limited to satirists or artistic types more generally. And losing one's mother and father in the space of a year is a melancholy business. I know for sure that when I finished Supreme Courtship, my first thought was to hope we won't have to wait too long for Buckley's next book.

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