Chris Buckley has high hopes for his new novel, even if he has to fight Tom Clancy along the way

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Granted, he doesn’t star in the Phantom Menace or Dawson’s Creek. Nor do his book sales exactly scare Stephen King. But Christopher Buckley still makes for a darn fine Entertainment Weekly subject. Plus, Mel Gibson’s mentioned later on.

Still with us? Good. ‘Cause there are plenty of juicy reasons to read about Buckley: He’s the son of lockjaw right-winger William F. Buckley Jr. He’s embroiled in a feud with Tom Clancy. And oh, yeah, he’s damn funny.

In fact, this 46-year-old Washington, D.C., resident is arguably America’s sharpest comic novelist — an admittedly rare animal in this land of Grisham and Rice.

Exhibit A: Buckley’s new novel Little Green Men, which his publisher, Random House, is pitching as ”The X-Files meets Mark Twain.” The breezy book — Buckley’s eighth — tracks the travails of John O. Banion, a blowhard Beltway talking head (think George Will) who announces he’s been abducted and anally probed by aliens. As the poor guy’s life implodes, Buckley gives us a skewed tour of all things alien, including an abductee magazine called Cosmos-politan (sample feature: ”But Will He Respect You as a Human Being?”). ”I dove into my research at a UFO convention,” Buckley says. ”The hardest part was keeping a straight face. By the end of the weekend, my cheeks were well chewed.” The pain paid off. The book displays all of Buckley’s strengths: a clever high concept, gentle pokes at Right and Left, a sprinkling of puns. ”He never writes a mean line,” boasts his dad. ”He’s able to tie people up and throw them in the ocean but without leaving a harsh Cromwellian aftertaste.” (Yeah, what he said.)

Random House is hoping Green Men will be Buckley’s close encounter with a mass audience, unlike his other well-reviewed-but-not-exactly-blockbuster books: 1994’s Thank You for Smoking, a hilarious tale of a tobacco PR guy; 1997’s Wry Martinis, a collection of his droll essays (e.g., the Pope goes on Oprah to plug his book); and 1986’s memoir spoof The White House Mess, based on his speechwriting gig for then VP George Bush. ”He was a real gent,” says Buckley.

There’s that inbred conservatism peeking out. As he holds forth in his airy suburban duplex (where he lives with wife Lucy and kids Caitlin, 11, and Conor, 7), Buckley looks and sounds just a tad like a certain Firing Line host: the dramatic pauses, the rapid-fire blinking, the slightly watered-down Brahmin accent. While we’re on the subject, what was it like being the son of William F.? ”It was a joy to grow up around that dinner table and hear those words come so trippingly off that very supple tongue.”

Indeed, his was a maddeningly privileged boyhood: boarding school, Yale, getting chummy with the likes of Norman Mailer. And one ripe for mild, somewhat studied rebellion: After college, Buckley joined the merchant marine and had his pinkie tattooed with the phrase F— YOU, so the officers would read it when he saluted.

His streak of upper-class mischief continues. In ’91, Buckley, editor of blue-blood lifestyle mag Forbes FYI, printed a fictitious item about the Russians selling Lenin’s corpse. Peter Jennings reported it on ABC’s World News Tonight before issuing a red-faced retraction. Then there’s l’affaire Clancy. In a ’94 book review, Buckley called the techno-thriller scribe ”the James Fenimore Cooper of his day, which is to say, the most successful bad writer of his generation.” A public fax battle ensued. Now Buckley has cooked up a pigheaded character in Green Men who bears an eerie resemblance to…you guessed it. The fellow’s name: Karl Cuntmore. ”He’s impossible,” says Buckley of his real-life nemesis. ”Of course, sales of my best-selling book amount to a Tom Clancy accounting error.”

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