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Florence of Arabia

Chris Buckley is the Hiaasen of Washington. His books are smart and funny, and make you think even as you laugh. (I know that sounds like I'm trying to write a blurb. That's how I write. My style is "blurby." Speaking of which, I should mention that Buckley is a professional friend who has blurbed a couple of my books and once gave me a nice writing assignment for his magazine Forbes FYI. None of this has anything to do with the central fact that soon the "Washington comedic novel" will be considered a genre proprietary to Buckley.) My favorite Buckley novel is "Thank You for Smoking," which performs the literary feat of making the reader sympathize with a tobacco lobbyist. And he gets the UFO crowd exactly right in "Little Green Men."

His new book is "Florence of Arabia," and as absurd as some of the plot twists are, they're no more absurd than the stuff you read every day on the front page of this newspaper. Buckley's heroine is Florence Farfaletti, a disillusioned State Department official who is persuaded by a mysterious figure known as Uncle Sam to start a women's liberation movement in the Arab world. The whole operation is off-the-books, and we don't learn until the end who Uncle Sam is (but no, he's not one of Rummy's guys in the new, top-secret Pentagon intelligence service). Florence starts a TV station in a small, decadent, oil-soaked emirate named Matar, but her programming, which pokes fun at religious extremism, incites the wrath of the mullahs in neighboring Wasabia. (I can't imagine that the leaders of Qatar and Saudi Arabia enjoyed this novel.) French secret agents get into the mix. There are lots of high-speed chases, and there's the obligatory rough-hewn, swashbuckling love interest. When a usurping emir gets blown up by his own exploding camel it reads like Buckley channeling Hiaasen channeling Barry. I found it to be great fun, but it also pricks the conscience and exposes the hypocrisies of American foreign policy. (Iraq we invade; Saudi Arabia we host at the ranch.)

By Joel Achenbach  |  January 25, 2005; 10:26 AM ET
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