Is it too soon to joke about COVID-19? In his new novel, Christopher Buckley tests that proposition, and his answer is a darkly funny, if decisive, no.
Buckley’s title, Has Anyone Seen My Toes?, refers to the ubiquitous weight gain many experienced during the pandemic. My weight gain was not that bad (I could still see my feet while standing on the scale). But I must confess I have a few button-down shirts with clearly defective buttons.
How is it that one of our primary worries while living through a global pandemic is excess love handles? This book isn’t rife with gallows humor. Instead, Buckley offers implicit commentary about a modern America where, for many of us, the pandemic wasn’t (unless you count the psychological toll) all that desperate. To this charge, I plead guilty.
The unnamed protagonist is an aging screenwriter living with his second wife, Peaches, in South Carolina. He’s smart, creative, funny, and easy to identify with. But he’s also a man (who may be) slowly losing his grip on reality. Then again, after months of social distancing, who could blame him?
This construct invites many opportunities for humorous storytelling. And by making his main character a writer, Buckley empowers himself to tell multiple 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 (generally cringeworthy) works of fiction. Some of Buckley’s most whimsical jags are delivered using this conceit.
Here’s one: Before moving to South Carolina, our hero’s first foray into the Palmetto State was an unsuccessful project called Swamp Foxes. It was something of a titillating tale about attractive female 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 labeled that "Yankee pornographer" who makes "titty movies."
This reputation haunts the screenwriter, leading him to pursue a more sophisticated redemption project during the COVID lockdown.
His new idea is called Heimlich’s Maneuver, and the main character is a World War II general named (you guessed it) Heimlich. Heimlich is tasked with kidnapping Franklin Roosevelt (convalescing in South Carolina) and spiriting him back to Germany. Once in Germany, he would be ransomed in return for America dropping out of the war.
No, Heimlich isn’t a monster, our protagonist decides. He’s more like Erwin Rommel (the Desert Fox) or even Claus von Stauffenberg. And the bad guys are as incompetent as they are sinister (think The Death of Stalin or Jojo Rabbit). It’s not 100 percent clear whether the protagonist wants this plot to be intentionally corny, or if it’s just the COVID talking. Regardless, our hero seems to think it’s quite brilliant.
COVID-19 is a supporting character throughout the book, including jokes about ordering toilet paper from China and dubious COVID cures better suited for horse tranquilizers. Ditto contemporary news stories like the murder of George Floyd. At one point, our hero’s wife, Peaches, becomes 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 has caused our narrator to gain so much weight unveils a healthier option called the Green New Meal—a thinly veiled reference to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D., N.Y.) Green New Deal. All this to say, there is no dearth of current political references (although, as someone who covers politics on the regular, it’s much more fun to read as satire).
As in real life, Donald Trump’s presidency is omnipresent. This should come as no surprise, since Buckley’s last book was titled Make Russia Great Again.
Remember, for example, that time Trump bragged about passing a cognitive test that required repeating five words? In the story within the story called Heimlich’s Maneuver, Hitler makes a similar boast about a test administered by his physician, Dr. Morell (except, instead of "person," "woman," "man," "camera," and "TV," his five words are "Adolf," "Hitler," "is," "the," and "Führer").
On occasion, it feels like Buckley is using the book primarily to launder his personal political commentary. If so, this strikes me as a fine (and relatively safe) idea. Why didn’t I think of that? It would provide some plausible deniability and (perhaps) limit the glut of hate emails from "Oaf Keepers."
In between grabbing fast food, lamenting Swamp Foxes, and writing Heimlich’s Maneuver, our hero also becomes obsessed with a local coroner’s race. 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 isn’t always reliable, thereby conveying the serious topic of mental health during a pandemic in a humorous manner.
This romp is simultaneously thought-provoking and (for those of us enmeshed in current events) refreshingly escapist. Buckley’s father is William F. Buckley, who is generally considered to be among the greatest public conservative intellectuals of the 20th century. When it comes to political satire, Christopher Buckley bats in a similarly elite league.
Has Anyone Seen My Toes?
by Christopher Buckley
Simon & Schuster, 288 pp., $26.99
Matt Lewis is a senior columnist for the Daily Beast and the author of Too Dumb to Fail.