Spin, spin, sugar


Christopher Buckley <em>Allison & Busby, 318pp, £10.99 </em>

America's aging population is a resource - hogging mass of obscenely healthy, overprescribed, golf-happy pension-suckers, tanned to deepest shades of Floridian orange and destined to live longer than, frankly, they deserve.

That's according to Cassandra Devine, an angry 29-year-old Washington spin doctor. By day, Cass devises damage-limitation and image- improvement ideas for her PR firm's most abhorrent clients: private hospitals that duct-tape patients to wheelchairs; Japanese whale hunters; North Korea's government (the concept - a celebrity pro-am golf tournament to smooth international tensions). But by night, Cass loads up on NoDoz and Red Bull and blogs until dawn, firing invective at America's 77 million baby boomers. Her gripe is that America's social security system is about to go bust: "Boomsday" - the effect of so many newly retired boomers drawing their state benefits - is coming, and her generation is having to pick up the bill.

So begins Christopher Buckley's latest assault on Washington spin culture. The author of several satirical novels - including Thank You for Smoking - and the son of the veteran journalist William F Buckley couldn't be more familiar with the world he harpoons. Washington is in his bones, and his insider knowledge shines hilariously through, as Cass's cause rattles the soon-to-be-skeletons who control America's halls of power.

Buckley goes to some lengths to explain Cass's back story. When she is offered a place at Yale, she discovers that her father Frank has spent her college fund on a dotcom start-up. As a consequence, the only way she can afford Yale is if the army pays for it, so she signs up, and is stationed in Bosnia with the US army's Public Affairs Battalion ("Spinning Eagles").

But things get messy when a congressional delegation arrives and she is assigned as an escort to the ambitious young Congressman Randolph "Randy" Jepperson IV, a Massachusetts blue blood who decided, after a triple dose of LSD, that politics was the way to sort his life out. Randy makes Cass breach protocols, then provokes some pretty mean "Bozzies", and in trying to escape, drives into a minefield and has his leg blown off. He returns to the US a wounded war hero, while Cass, though escaping injury, is given a not-very-honourable discharge.

Randy feels guilty enough to offer her a job in Washington, thus giving her a start in spin and drawing them together for a slightly unconvincing romantic subplot. But it's Cass's blog that really gives her story lift-off. As her late-night ravings gain an increasingly militant following of twentysomethings, she has a major brainwave: an incentivised suicide scheme, packaged as "Voluntary Transitioning", in which boomers are offered tax breaks to kill themselves when they turn 70. While Cass intends it as a "meta - issue" to raise awareness of the impending social-security crisis, Randy senses that Voluntary Transitioning is his golden, if slightly macabre, ticket to political paradise.

Any minor problems with the plot (the Bosnian set-up, the romance) are forgiven for Boomsday's magnificent cast of secondary characters. There is the outburst-prone President Riley Peacham ("I'm not afraid of that candy-ass. I'll tear off his prosthetic leg and beat him to death with it. On national television") and his adviser Bucky Trumble, a man prepared to bend ears, rules and constitutional rights, and who flushes proudly whenever Peacham calls him a "clever cocksucker". Cass's estranged father Frank also does a nasty turn, transforming into a malicious dotcom billionaire who spends his spare time preparing for the next America's Cup aboard his boat Expensive.

But Buckley's triumphs are his two guardians of the religious right. First, Reverend Gideon Payne, founder of the Society for the Protection of Every Ribonucleic Molecule (Sperm), a portly pro-lifer rumoured to have killed his mother. Gideon agrees to deliver America's Southern Baptist vote to President Peacham, but only in exchange for his pet project - a Washington memorial to the 43 million foetuses terminated since Roe v Wade (Peacham's response: "I'll shove 43 million foetuses up his ass! And I'll bet there's room for them!"). And second, Monsignor Massimo Montefeltro, the Vatican's number two in Washington, who lives in a Georgetown mansion and has "a living allowance that would certainly have given St Francis of Assisi pause, if not an embolism" as a reward for persuading wealthy Catholic widows to leave their husbands' fortunes to the Church.

While such hubristically supercharged boom ers are clearly worthy of ridicule, Cass's own fickle peers don't fare much better. Of one demonstration involving under-thirties, Buckley writes:

"Emergency medical crews stood ready to treat anyone stricken with self-esteem deficit. Curious boomers who looked on from the sidelines remarked that it was just like the Vietnam protests, only completely different. 'In those days,' said one old-timer riding by on a Segway, 'we didn't have nearly the variety of bottled waters you have today. Man, those were crazy times.'"

If you really want to read about spin in all its cynical glory, then ditch your Alastair Campbell doorstops and buy this lacerating satire instead. You'll laugh your ass - sorry, arse - off.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, An abuse of power