A new approach to the pandemic

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Is it too early to joke about COVID-19? In his new novel, Christopher Buckley tests this proposition, and his answer is darkly funny, if decisive, Nope.

Buckley’s title, Has anyone seen my toes?, refers to the pervasive weight gain many have experienced during the pandemic. My weight gain wasn’t that bad (I could still see my feet while standing on the scale). But I have to admit that I have a few button down shirts with clearly defective buttons.

How come one of our biggest concerns when we’re going through a global pandemic is excess love handles? This book is not full of gallows humor. Instead, Buckley offers an implicit commentary on a modern America where, for many of us, the pandemic wasn’t (unless you count the psychological toll) so hopeless. To this charge, I plead guilty.

The unnamed protagonist is an aging screenwriter living with his second wife, Peaches, in South Carolina. He is smart, creative, funny and easy to identify. But he’s also a man (perhaps) slowly losing his grip on reality. Then again, after months of social distancing, who could blame him?

This construct invites plenty of humorous storytelling opportunities. And by making its main character a writer, Buckley gives himself the power to tell several stories. The main narrative is more about style than plot. But there’s also the inner dialogue as the screenwriter both contemplates and writes his (usually goofy) works of fiction. Some of Buckley’s fanciest jags are delivered using this vanity.

Here’s one: Before moving to South Carolina, our hero’s first foray into Palmetto State was a failed project called marsh foxes. It was something of a titillating tale about attractive prostitutes who engage in licentious behavior for an admirable reason: to support Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion (aka, the Swamp Fox) and his band of revolutionaries.

Thanks to this flop, Buckley’s protagonist is forever branded as a “Yankee pornographer” who makes “titty movies.”

This reputation haunts the screenwriter, leading him to pursue a more sophisticated takeover scheme during the COVID lockdown.

His new idea is called Heimlich maneuver, and the main character is a WWII general named (you guessed it) Heimlich. Heimlich is responsible for kidnapping Franklin Roosevelt (recovering in South Carolina) and bringing him back to Germany. Once in Germany, he would be redeemed in exchange for America giving up the war.

No, Heimlich is not a monster, our protagonist decides. He looks more like Erwin Rommel (the Desert Fox) or even Claus von Stauffenberg. And the bad guys are as incompetent as they are sinister (think Stalin’s death Where JoJo Rabbit). It’s not 100% clear if the protagonist wants this plot to be intentionally cheesy, or if it’s just COVID talking. Either way, our hero seems to think it’s pretty brilliant.

COVID-19 is a supporting character throughout the book, including jokes about ordering toilet paper in China and questionable COVID cures better suited to horse tranquilizers. Ditto for contemporary news like the murder of George Floyd. At one point, our hero’s wife, Peaches, finds herself embroiled in a subplot about tearing down Confederate statues – a project vehemently opposed by a group she calls “Oaf Keepers”.

At another point, the fast-food restaurant that made our narrator gain so much weight unveils a healthier option called Green New Meal — a thinly-veiled reference to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D., NY). All that to say, there’s no shortage of current political references (although, as someone who covers politics regularly, it’s much more fun to read as satire).

As in real life, the presidency of Donald Trump is omnipresent. This should come as no surprise, since Buckley’s last book was titled Make Russia Great Again.

Do you remember, for example, when Trump bragged about passing a cognitive test that required repeating five words? In the story in the story called Heimlich maneuverHitler makes a similar boast about a test administered by his doctor, Dr. Morell (except that instead of “person”, “woman”, “man”, “camera” and “TV“, his five words are “Adolf, “Hitler”, “is”, “the” and “Führer”).

On occasion, one gets the impression that Buckley uses the book primarily to whitewash his personal political commentary. If so, that sounds like a good (and relatively safe) idea to me. Why didn’t I think of that? This would provide plausible denial and (perhaps) limit the glut of hateful emails from “Oaf Keepers”.

Between the fast foods, the lamentations marsh foxesand writing Heimlich maneuver, our hero also becomes obsessed with running a local coroner. He becomes convinced that one candidate is a puppet for the Kremlin, while the other is involved in “premature burials”. At some point, the reader realizes that the narrator is not always reliable, thus humorously tackling the serious subject of mental health in the time of a pandemic.

This game is both challenging and (for those of us entangled in current affairs) refreshing escape. Buckley’s father is William F. Buckley, who is generally considered one of the greatest public conservative intellectuals of the 20th century. When it comes to political satire, Christopher Buckley beats in an equally elite league.

Has anyone seen my toes?
by Christopher Buckley
Simon & Schuster, 288 pages, $26.99

Matt Lewis is a senior columnist for the daily beast and the author of Too stupid to fail.

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