- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 11, 2004

FLORENCE OF ARABIA

By Christopher Buckley

Random House, $24.95, 255 pages

REVIEWED BY DAVID SKINNER

In his latest novel, “Florence of Arabia,” Christopher Buckley abandons several story elements that have served him well in recent books. For one, he moves the action out of Washington, D.C., his hometown and primary canvas since 1987’s “White House Mess,” to the Middle East, which he visited to write this book.

Taking leave of the capital requires him also to relinquish his great subject, American political-class cynicism. “Florence of Arabia” is different from his other novels in shape as well, except perhaps “No Way to Treat a First Lady,” which also opens with a tone-setting calamity whose resolution carries the rest of the story.

“No Way to Treat a First Lady” was, however, a celebrity trial spoof, whose heroine closely resembled Hillary Clinton in the completely imagined (but not unimaginable) situation of being tried for the murder of her husband. “Florence of Arabia” is a comic spy thriller, an action story from the get-go, whose heroine is cut from more generic, though still very likable, cloth.

Florence Farfaletti, deputy to the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, receives a desperate phone call in the middle of the night at her home in Foggy Bottom. On the other end is her friend Nazrah, a wife of — rather, one of several wives belonging to — Prince Bawad, ambassador to the United States from Wasabia. (Wasabia is a Middle East kingdom whose Wahabbist religion, oil wealth, World War II geography, and history of repression may remind the reader of America’s dubious ally Saudi Arabia.)

Nazrah just learned that the prince has been promoted to foreign minister, which means everyone in the household is going back to Wasabia, and so she has decided to make a break for freedom. Currently on the run from the prince’s security detail, she wants Florence to help her get asylum.

It doesn’t happen. Nazrah, after being returned to Wasabia, pays with her life for the attempted prison-break. Florence never gets over her failure, or America’s failure, to save her friend.

Florence tries working through her guilt by proposing the United States adopt a radical new strategy to reforming the Middle East. The resulting report, entitled “Female Emancipation as a Means of Achieving Long-Term Stability in the Middle East,” succeeds merely at getting her transferred.

Florence instead resigns from the State Department. She is then approached by a quasi-government, black-ops guy calling himself Uncle Sam, who is quite interested in her proposal and would like to fund an operation along its lines.

A certain kind of action movie (like “Ocean’s Eleven,” “Mission Impossible” and countless others) makes its transition from Act One to Act Two with a dramatis-personae sequence introducing The Crew. They’re the guys who are going to pull off The Job.

The same call for heroes goes out in “Florence of Arabia,” but all the recruits suffer from some fundamental flaw. One, a language expert, is afraid to travel abroad. Another, Rick Renard — protege of “Thank You for Smoking“‘s Nick Naylor and the same Washington PR man whom Mr. Buckley made famous in a series of short stories — is an amoral Washington slick whose contribution has to be purchased.

The last is a bullying former Marine, an undercover-commando type whose unromantic worldview has been forged by firsthand experience of several Middle East meltdowns.

The Job is to start up a regional women’s satellite TV station, one that’s going to be much friskier, politically speaking, than the Lifetime channel. Headquarters will be located in Matar, Wasabia’s coastal neighbor, a secularized country made rich by the fact that without its ports, Wasabia has no sea access to ship its oil. From there the message of female emancipation will be broadcast throughout the Muslim world.

Movie action may also have helped inspire the novel’s especially brisk pacing. Except that few movies do nearly as good a job of maintaining characters’ distinct identities amidst the whirlwind of activity needed to put butts in seats. And few comedies (cinematic, televised, or literary) do so good a job at finding the right story line and humor to generate jokes that don’t take characters out of themselves or out of the story.

Always achieving a superior balance between material and structure, Mr. Buckley also rarely burdens a chapter (much less a paragraph or a sentence) with more action than it should contain.

A certain kind of proportionality is also the rule when it comes to the author’s politics. He’s collegial enough to Bush Republicanism to accept that noble intentions fuel America’s more adventurous forays abroad, but not so polite as to ignore all the ill consequences of such interventionism.

Says Florence’s patron, Uncle Sam, when he’s courting her for the mission:

“Well, I always say, if you can’t solve a problem, make it larger. The remarkable thing is how well we mean, America. And yet it always turns out so — badly.”

Cheerful ambivalence is a curious position for a satirist. Another Florence, Florence King, world expert on mean, has argued that satire requires a strong, uncharitable point of view. Which is why, Miss King says, there are no significant liberal satirists: They’re too keen on being nice all the time.

Yet Mr. Buckley appears to have mapped out a point of view without the aid of a party line. It is the point of view of an amused observer, taking it all in with great interest and little partisan pique. There is also an underlying seriousness of humane concern, another aspect that distinguishes this novel among Mr. Buckley’s work. Not that his other books trade in cruelty; but they certainly don’t wear their hearts on their sleeve. By contrast, “Florence of Arabia,” the story of an admirable woman who believes she has an opportunity to alleviate suffering in the world, suggests idealism is worthy of defense.

For an issue du jour with which to make high comedy, one might, at first, believe the Middle East a poor choice. It is difficult, for instance, to think of Saudi Arabia without recalling that 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers called that country home.

But within the Islamic world — whose inner workings have become the most important political and philosophical mystery of our time — there are many obvious injustices ripe for satire. The subservient status of women, the work of religious police, the anti-Semitism, and so on.

Behind the terrifying face of jihad are societies with their own examples of prurience, hypocrisy, incompetence, and venality, and all the other petty, all-too-human qualities whose airing can — and in Mr. Buckley’s case do — make for delightful satire.

While Mr. Buckley cannot of course demonstrate the kind of intimacy he has with American manners, he has studied up, and he finds ways to get at the material. Some of the best humor in the book, for instance, comes in the form of programming ideas for the women’s TV network. The ideas are all very Western — and more unsettling and funny as a result. One popular show remakes the religious police of an Islamic society as Keystone Kops.

Mr. Buckley also sets up a Middle East Oprah, one of whose episodes features a female guest who — get this — has driven a car. In a society where women aren’t allowed to drive, it’s just the kind of show the [queen of talk would produce.[$PARAGRAPH_OFF$]

David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at the Weekly Standard and the editor of Doublethink magazine.

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