It was a time so absurd that Christopher Buckley was no stranger to trying to find the funny in it, as he does intermittently in his new novel, Has Anyone Seen My Toes? The unnamed protagonist is a screenwriter who has settled in a comfortable, semi-discontinuous home environment in South Carolina. But a new story escapes him, a snake has literally cuddled his mailbox, and his body has been betraying him since before the pandemic. (The title points to the central question when he steps on the scale, thanks to his regular junk food frenzy.)
As the story begins, he’s sure he’s doomed after a worker at his favorite supplier of calorie bombs, Hippo King, sneezed in his general direction. His doctor tries to calm him down and says, “Take a deep breath.” But this soothing advice does not fit his concerns. “This will make the droplets penetrate my lungs even deeper!” Respond.
Our hero is sure a new script will help him find his position, but it hasn’t shaken off the stigma left by his latest movie, a novel about Revolutionary War-era prostitutes he presented as “The Patriot” meets “The Best” a small Texas brothel. . His new movie — the World War II thriller in which the Nazis kidnapped Franklin D. Roosevelt — doesn’t look like much. (Working title: “The Heimlich Maneuver”). Meanwhile, he’s become overly obsessed with the local elections for a coroner. His psyche is flooded with fanciful attack announcements filled with accusations of deception and early burial. He’s sure the Russians are somehow involved. It is understood that his wife is sending him to a psychotherapist.
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In short, “Toes” is the story of Walter Mitty – a shaggy haircut about a man whose wild daydreaming is at once a strategy of adaptation and character revelation. The obsession with the coroner’s race can only be a cover for his fear of death. His struggle to piece together his tale of Nazi kidnappers can only be a stand-in for his own efforts to arrange his life — not to mention a way to tackle all the Trumpian and neo-fascist noises in the air. Factor in plenty of Google access, and soon confident that dementia was imminent, he “wondered if maggots had crawled into his brain and eaten the wires.”
For years, Buckley fired his satisfying sense of humor at big targets. His 1994 debut, Thank You For Smoking, looked at the tobacco parlour through the Fun House mirror. The 2020 movie Make Russia Great Again was doing the same for the Trump administration. His 2007 novel “Boomsday” was based on the idea of encouraging Americans over 70 to kill themselves as a national policy. 2012 “They eat puppies, right?” It turns into a plot to assassinate the Dalai Lama. Sacred and Deconstructed Cows Heart of a satirical work. The pandemic must have seemed like just another field full of fears and piety for Buckley to conquer.
It is somewhat. Buckley had a great time exploring the neuroses of life before the vaccine: the search for alternative medicines; Minor insults generated by the tests (“I thought the swab would come off the top of my head. I’ve seen shorter telephone poles”); Personal dislike about whether you can politely ask friends if they took the test before you finished their test. But the broader comedy about the spread of the coronavirus requires mocking the Trump administration’s incompetence, and Buckley has already spent that powder on Make Russia Great Again. Once you make the requisite jokes about exams, toilet paper, and masks (can you keep them for when you take your passport photo?), the well starts to dry up somewhat.
And so “Toes” ends up becoming a novel about a lot of things, with the hero’s busy mind pondering etymology, epidemiological reading (Proust, to be specific), canceling out culture, none of which makes humor particularly exciting targets. (“Why don’t you have a new R-rated for Racist? WTL: Way Too Long.”) Buckley took a crack at controversy over the laws of the Confederacy, mocking a group called the Oaf Keepers, but the plot is as streamlined as a word game. This story of shaggy dogs gets very shaggy, and at times it’s not clear if Buckley himself knows where he wants the narrative to go.
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The novel hangs best together—at its best—when Buckley clings to the preposterous scenario our hero is working on, and his car to confront his fear of death. Just as Franklin Roosevelt faces the hostage of his impending demise, so does our chubby, possibly coronavirus-positive, possibly aging hero. Hitler brags about his performance on a cognitive function test; A giant squid seems to save the situation; Double intersections abound. Nothing works. The author ponders: “He could throw in a little anti-reality history,” the “what-if” kind where, for example, the South wins the Civil War, Lee Harvey Oswald jams, or a failed casino owner is elected president of the United States. Everything unite together.”
Except, of course, everything falls apart. but it does not matter. For anyone who has gone through the early days of the pandemic, it doesn’t matter how much sense and sense we have in our lives. What matters is that we lived to tell the tale. And it’s a funny story – sometimes.
Mark AthitakesHe is a critic in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest. “
Simon & Schuster. 288 pages $26.99
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