Moby Dick is hardly a topic guaranteed to provoke belly laughs. Unless, that is, you’re talking to the acclaimed novelist Christopher Buckley and he’s showcasing his impression of a certain ex-president: “We’re gonna kill this whale, folks! And it’s gonna be beautiful, so beautiful when I stick that harpoon in. And I’m the greatest of all harpooners, you know I am.”
And it isn’t just 19th century tales of whale hunting; Buckley can make anything funny, and recently did exactly that when he indulged me with a lengthy Zoom call on an otherwise gloomy COVID afternoon. Together, we explored subjects ranging from the struggles and satisfactions of writing to the impertinence of Balty, his Bernese Mountain Dog, who repeatedly injected his snout into the proceedings. Unsurprisingly, we spent almost every second of our conversation giggling heartily.
Since the publication of his first novel, The White House Mess, in 1986, Buckley has risen to become America’s foremost literary satirist by lampooning cultural and political institutions in a manner that is always sharp but never callous. America, Buckley wrote in Boomsday (2007), is a “lunatic asylum, without enough attendants or tranquilizers.”
Droll portrayals of Washington life are Buckley’s forte. In his fiction, D.C. is defined by overlapping conspiracy theories, feckless House politicians, and presidencies that would seem impossibly chaotic if not for the last five years. And yet it was Donald Trump, who convinced him to return to political satire in 2020 after an extended hiatus that began in 2012. “I’d reached the conclusion that American politics were sufficiently self-satirizing,” Buckley told me, reflecting on the rise of Sarah Palin and the broader strangeness of the Obama era. “And so I wrote two historical novels. The books did okay, but it was pretty clear that wasn’t what people wanted from me.”