Buckley guilty of fomenting satire in Middle East

October 03, 2004|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Sun Staff

Florence of Arabia, by Christopher Buckley. Random House. 254 pages. $24.95

There can be no doubt that Christopher Buckley is the leading satirist of his generation, a Twain or Mencken for our times, a comic novelist who skewers his subjects so hilariously and completely that you almost feel sorry for the poor arrogant dunces when he's through with them.

In Thank You for Smoking, he took on political correctness and the machinations of Big Tobacco. In Little Green Men, it was conspiracy theories, UFO crazies and the shrill, pink-faced blowhards who dominate Sunday morning TV talk shows that were eviscerated. In No Way to Treat a First Lady, it was the Washington establishment and high-powered lawyers.

Now comes Florence of Arabia; in Buckley's cross hairs this time is the subject of Arab-American relations in the post-9 / 11 landscape, as well as the inferior status of women in so much of the Middle East.

The new novel is not as funny and pointed as Thank You for Smoking or Green Men, not as rollicking as First Lady. But it's still Buckley at the keyboard, which means the laughs -- and the wicked send-ups of the powerful and conceited -- are never in short supply.

Florence Farfaletti is bright, engaging and sexy, the deputy to the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs.

When the willful, independent wife of Prince Bawad, ambassador of the fictional Roy-al Kingdom of Wasabia to the U.S., is executed by sword on trumped-up charges of adultery -- after pleading for asy-lum in America -- Florence swings into action.

She hatches an ingenious plot to foment a women's revolution in the Middle East via a radical TV program aimed at the fairer sex that originates in Wasabia's neighboring country, the tiny emirate of Matar, known as "the Switzerland of the Persian Gulf."

When the scheme receives the covert blessing of the U.S. government, Flor-ence recruits a team of misfits that looks like something out of a modern-day Dirty Dozen.

Accompanying her to Matar is a brilliant, phobic and burnt-out gay bureaucrat, a soulless Washington PR man who would work for the devil if the pay was right, and a taciturn CIA operative who brings new meaning to the term "loose cannon."

What follows is a giant mess for the ruling classes of oil-rich Matar and Wasabia.

The TV show becomes a huge hit, and the women of both countries grow more and more emboldened, increasingly challenging the official state-sponsored version of Islam, with its austere laws and emphasis on female subservience.

The story line stumbles in the final few chapters, when the Arab women's uprising is in full flower and Florence and her gang are on the run from the enraged rulers of Matar and Wasabia and the religious police.

Even for a comic novel, the plot gets a little too far-fetched and the ending is something out of a James Bond movie, the equivalent of Bond and his plucky forces of good rappelling into the fake volcano and surprising Dr. No and his evil SPECTRE minions.

But all in all, it's still a fun read, and another dead-on satire from the best in the business.

Kevin Cowherd is a Sun columnist.

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