Thanks to Hollywood and writers like Christopher Buckley, America has given the world a brand-new literary form: the revenge comedy. In the movies, maverick cops roam the world, taking names, kicking butts, and making wisecracks. For all the gore, pictures like Die Hard are essentially Road Runner cartoons with superior special effects. Audiences do more chuckling than gasping. Now comes former George Bush speechwriter Christopher Buckley with a novelized version.
Even though Wet Work isn’t a movie yet, we’re still talking extremely high concept: Lethal Weapon 2 meets The Emerald Forest, complete with nubile Amazonian love slaves flitting naked through the rain forest. But the real innovation in Buckley’s work is sociological. Instead of an impertinent working stiff like your typical Mel Gibson-Bruce Willis-Michael Douglas character, Wet Work gives us a maverick plutocrat: a self-made billionaire defense contractor and friend of the President named Charley Becker.
In addition to his finely engraved Purdy shotgun, Becker owns a custom- built yacht in the destroyer class equipped with an assault helicopter, manned by a trio of retired CIA killers named McNamara, Rostow, and Bundy, and decorated with original paintings by Manet. In the words of one of the archetypal fumbling bureaucrats who plays the inevitable foil, Charley Becker is ”the Rich Man’s Bernhard Goetz.”
It may bear mentioning that Buckley — whose previous novel, The White House Mess, was praised by many for its satire — is the son of the prolific conservative columnist and novelist William F. Also that the yacht, according to the acknowledgments page, is based on one owned by the late Malcolm Forbes and upon which the author once journeyed up the Amazon.
As one would expect of such a concoction, Wet Work’s plot moves smartly and preposterously along. First comes the obligatory death of an innocent, in this case Becker’s beloved granddaughter, Natasha. Before her performance in an Off Broadway play about junkies, she succumbs to cardiac arrest after snorting cocaine furnished in the interest of realism by the director, who is also her lover. Finding the NYPD uninterested in solving the crime, Becker hires professional help and begins ”working [his] way up the food chain,” from the cowardly director to his supplier, to the Miami importer to the dissolute Peruvian gangster — a left-winger, naturally — who set up the jungle lab that manufactured the stuff.
At each step, in accordance with the iron laws of revenge comedy, the villains grow more villainous, the body count gets higher, the explosions get exponentially bigger, and Buckley’s jokey, hyperbolic style becomes progressively more out of kilter. Caught in the open in a firefight, our hero feels ”as exposed as a referee at a tennis match, and surrounded by McEnroes with machine pistols.” For all of Buckley’s manic wit, it’s these sorts of equations that don’t quite work. B