It’s been such an absurd time, that it’s not out of bounds for Christopher Buckley to try to find the funny in it, as he intermittently does in his new novel, “Has Anyone Seen My Toes?” The unnamed protagonist is a screenwriter settled in cozy, semiretired domesticity in South Carolina. But a new story eludes him, a snake has literally embraced his mailbox, and his body has been betraying him since before the pandemic. (The title refers to the central question when he steps on a scale, thanks to regular fast-food binges.)
As the story opens, he’s sure he’s doomed after a worker at his favorite calorie-bomb purveyor, Hippo King, sneezes in his general direction. His doctor tries to pacify him: “Take a deep breath,” he says. But that calming advice is no match for his fears. “That’ll make the droplets penetrate deeper into my lungs!” he retorts.
Our hero is sure that a new screenplay will help him find his center, but he hasn’t shaken off the disgrace of his last film, a romp about Revolutionary War-era prostitutes that he pitched as “ ‘The Patriot’ meets ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.’ ” His new one — a World War II thriller in which Franklin D. Roosevelt is kidnapped by Nazis — doesn’t seem much more promising. (Working title: “Heimlich’s Maneuver.”) In the meantime, he’s become inordinately obsessed with the local election for coroner. His psyche floods with imaginary attack ads filled with accusations of skulduggery and premature burials. Russians, he’s sure, are involved somehow. His wife understandably dispatches him to a therapist.
In short, “Toes” is a Walter Mitty story — a shaggy-dog tale about a man whose wild daydreams are at once a coping strategy and a revelation of his character. Obsessing over a coroner’s race can only be a cover for his fear of death. His struggle to hang together his goofball tale of Nazi kidnappers can only be a stand-in for his own efforts to put his life in order — not to mention a way to process all the Trumpy, neo-fascist noises in the air. Factor in too much access to Google, and he’s soon confident that dementia is imminent, “wondering if caterpillars have crawled into his brain and are eating the wiring.”
For years, Buckley has unleashed his morbid sense of humor on big targets. His 1994 breakthrough, “Thank You for Smoking,” looked at the tobacco lobby through a funhouse mirror; 2020’s “Make Russia Great Again” did much the same for the Trump administration. His 2007 novel, “Boomsday,” was premised on the idea that Americans over 70 be encouraged, as a matter of national policy, to kill themselves; 2012’s “They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?” turns on a plot to assassinate the Dalai Lama. Sacred cows, and the dismantlement thereof, are the heart of the satirist’s business. The pandemic must have seemed like just another field full of fears and pieties for Buckley to muck about in.
Which it is, to an extent. Buckley has a good time exploring the neuroses of pre-vaccine life: the hunt for alternative medications; the minor humiliations of tests (“I thought the swab would come out the top of my head. I have seen shorter telephone poles.”); the private hand-wringing over whether you can politely ask friends if they’ve been tested before you have them over. But a broader covid-pandemic comedy would require satirizing the ineptitude of the Trump administration, and Buckley already spent that powder on “Make Russia Great Again.” Once you’ve delivered the requisite jokes about tests, toilet paper and masks (can you keep it on when getting your passport photo taken?), the well starts to run fairly dry.
So “Toes” winds up becoming a novel about a lot of things, as the hero’s busy mind ponders etymology, pandemic reading (Proust, specifically), and cancel culture, none of which make for especially juicy targets for humor. (“Why not have a new R rating for Racist? And WTL: Way Too Long.”) Buckley takes a crack at the controversy over Confederate statutes, poking fun at a group called the Oaf Keepers, but the plotline is as simplistic as the pun. This particular shaggy-dog story gets very shaggy, and at times it’s not clear if Buckley himself knows where he wants the narrative to go.
The novel hangs together best — and is at its funniest — when Buckley sticks with the preposterous screenplay that our hero is laboring on, his vehicle for facing his fear of death. Just as FDR-as-hostage is confronting his imminent demise, so is our portly, perhaps coronavirus-positive, maybe-senile hero. Hitler boasts about his performance on a cognitive function test; a giant squid appears to save the day; double-crosses abound. Whatever works. “He could throw in a bit of counterfactual history,” the author muses, “the ‘what-if’ genre where, say, the South wins the Civil War, Lee Harvey Oswald’s gun jams, or a failed casino owner is elected president of the United States. It’s all coming together.”
Except, of course, it’s all coming apart. But no matter. For anybody who got through the pandemic’s early days, it doesn’t matter how much logic and sense there was to our lives. What mattered is that we lived to tell the tale. And it’s a funny story — sometimes.
Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”
Simon & Schuster. 288 pp. $26.99
A note to our readers
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program,
an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking
to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.