Book review: Florence of Arabia, by Christopher Buckley

originally posted elsewhere: January 2, 2006

tl;dr: Buckley achieves the near impossible: a Middle East comedy...

There hasn't been much of anything to laugh at in the Middle East since Saddam Hussein's propaganda minister was proclaiming the defeat of the Allied invaders while Allied tanks were rolling down the streets outside his Baghdad television studio. Yet somehow, in Florence of Arabia Christopher Buckley manages to produce an overall funny and on occasion hilarious comedy about the political conflicts in the Middle East.

Buckley does not shy away from anyone. Some of the funniest scenes in Florence of Arabia concern the "Waldorf Group", a thinly-veiled reference to the Carlyle Group, and how it uses its high-level connections, inside information and control to profit obscenely from government dealings. Other targets of Buckley's wit include the United States and French governments and bureaucracies, the corrupt hereditary rulers of the Middle East, and the cultural differences between the West and the Middle East.

A book cover with a blue background with some ornate geometric patterns at the upper and lower edges, with the title and author's name in large lettering sloping upwards, and a black silhouette of a woman leading a camel on a leash across a blue sand dune

My main criticism of Florence of Arabia is that, at times, Buckley departs from satire and includes scenes more typical of a thriller. There is a long car chase sequence that would be more appropriate in one of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels. The characters are a bit stereotyped, especially CIA/military operative Bobby Thibodeaux.

I've read all of Buckley's novels, and have enjoyed them all to varying degrees. In my opinion, his all-time best remain Thank You for Smoking, which lampoons the tobacco industry, Washington lobbyists and the public relations profession; God is My Broker, which takes on Wall Street and the church; and No Way to Treat a First Lady, which recounts the highlights of the Clinton years. Each of these other books has much richer source material to draw upon, and hence is more hilarious than Florence of Arabia.

I eagerly look forward to Buckley's next effort, and wonder what he will choose as his subject (professional sports? the media? global warming?). As did Mark Twain, Christopher Buckley performs an admirable service to our nation by pointing out our hypocrisies and keeping us laughing at ourselves.