The strange land of Washington, D.C., is teeming with aliens, politicians, and other bizarre life-forms. Beltway insider and stuffy talk show host John Oliver Banion finds his privileged life turned topsy-turvy when he is abducted by aliens from his exclusive country-club golf course. When he is abducted a second time, he believes he has found his true calling and, in the most passionate crusade of his life, demands that Congress and the White House seriously investigate the existence of extraterrestrials and UFOs. Friends and family, meanwhile, urge Banion to seek therapy before his reputation is ruined for good.
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About the Author
Jean Strouse won the Bancroft Prize in American History and Diplomacy for her biography Alice James. She lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
John O. Banion stared unblinkingly into the TV camera's cyclops eye, keeping his famous cool under the baking glare of the Videssence lights. It pleased him that he was more at ease than the person seated opposite him, who as it happened was the most powerful man in the world.
"Five seconds." The technician counted down with an outstretched hand. With his huge headset, he could have been a crewman on an aircraft carrier signaling for the launch of an
"Three, two . . ."
The theme music was cued, a variation on a Handel trumpet voluntary with echoes of Aaron Copland. The TV critic for The Washington Post had called it "Fanfare for the Self-Important Man." Still, nothing like a few bars of brass to get the Establishment's hemoglobin pumping on Sunday mornings as it sipped its third cup of coffee and scanned the newspapers for mentions of itself.
"Sunday . . ."
A satisfying opener, implying, as it did ownership of the entire day, and the Sabbath at that. The announcer's voice was familiar. It had taken four meetings between Banion, his producers, and the sponsor, Ample Ampere, to settle on it. Ample Ampere had wanted James Earl Jones, but Banion said that he couldn't hear the voice of James Earl Jones without thinking of Darth Vader, hardly an appropriate tone setter for such a high-level show as his. Ampere countered with Walter Cronkite. No, no, said Banion, Cronkite, the beloved former TV anchorman, was too avuncular, too upbeat. The voice must have such gravity as to suggest that if you missed the program, you were not a serious person. Only one would do--George C. Scott, the voice of General Patton.
". . . an explorationof tomorrow's issues, with today's leaders. And now . . ."--Banion had dictated the slight pause in the manner of Edward R. Murrow's wartime "This . . . is London" broadcasts--"your host . . . John Oliver Banion." The Post critic had written: "Drumroll, enter praetorians, household cavalry, concubines, elephants, rhinos, captured slaves, eunuchs, and other assorted worshipers."
Banion looked owlishly into the lens through his collegiate tortoiseshell eyeglasses. He seemed perpetually on the verge of smiling, without ever giving in to the impulse. He was in his late forties, but could have been any age. He had looked this way since his second year at Princeton. He had a round face that was handsome in a bookish sort of way. His graying blond hair was unstylishly cut, on purpose. He disdained salon haircuts as marks of unseriousness.
"Good morning," Banion said to the camera. "Our guest today is the president of the United States. Thank you for being with us this morning."
"My pleasure," lied the president. He had loathed John O. Banion ever since Banion had corrected him on a point of history at a White House dinner, in front of the French president. He would much--much--rather have stayed at Camp David, the presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountain Park outside Washington, on this Sunday morning. He chafed at being told by his press secretary that Banion insisted on a live interview in the studio. What was the point of being the most powerful man on earth if you had to grovel before these assholes, just because they had their own TV--
"Sir, it's the top-rated weekend show. And it looks like he's going to be moderating the debates this fall."
"All right, but you tell him, no commercials. I won't sit there twiddling my thumbs while they break for commercials every five minutes. It's unpresidential."
"Mr. President," Banion said, "I want to ask you why, in light of your administration's below-par performance in a number of areas, you haven't fired at least two-thirds of your cabinet, but first . . ."
It was a trademark Banion opener: establish the guest's inadequacy, then move along to the even more pressing issue. The president maintained glacial equanimity. For this he had gotten up early on Sunday and helicoptered all the way back to Washington. The press secretary would suffer.
". . . let me ask you about something else. We have a report that NASA, the space agency, is planning to advance the launch date of the final stage of the space station Celeste to right before the presidential election this fall. Would you call that a triumph of American aerospace engineering, or of politics? You can take credit for both, if you'd like."
The president smiled, suppressing his desire to pick up the water pitcher and smash it against the forehead of this supercilious twerp. But inside his brain alarms were sounding like those on a depth-charged submarine. How did Banion know about the launch date? They'd gone to pains to put in so many buffers between the White House and NASA on this exquisitely delicate matter that no one would be able to trace the decision to the Oval Office.
"John," he began, in his slow, overly patient tone of voice that suggested he wasn't sure English was your first language, "the credit for Celeste's dazzling success has to go, first and foremost, to hundreds and thousands of men and women who have worked their hearts out on this project from the very beginning. . . ."
Banion looked over his glasses in the manner of a disappointed schoolteacher and jotted notes on his clipboard. He did this not because any of the drivel exgurgitating like foam from the presidential mouth warranted recording but because it made his interviewees nervous.
". . . to make sure that America will not only be number one here on earth but number one out . . . there."
"Before we return to whether the timing of the launch was politically manipulated," said Banion, "let's talk for a moment about the wisdom of spending so many billions of dollars on a space station. So far all it seems to have accomplished is to provide a platform for studying the effects of weightlessness on copulating fruit flies."
"Three and a half years ago, only days after a disastrous and, if I may, ill-advised military operation in North Korea, you gave a speech at an aerospace plant in the Mojave Desert in California in which you called for completing an orbital space station. You called this 'an urgent national priority.' Some cynical voices at the time suggested that, like President Kennedy, who announced the man-on-the-moon initiative right after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, you were trying to get people's minds off the Korean debacle. But leave that aside for a moment--"
"If I may? And leave aside the fact that Celeste's biggest contractors are in California and Texas, two states you almost lost four years ago and which you desperately need to win this time. Let me ask you, after four years of cost overruns that would have made the emperor Caligula blush crimson, what does the nation have to show for this celestial boondoggle, aside from three-point-four-million-dollar zero-gravity coffeemakers and one-point-eight-million-dollar toilets?"
"With all due respect, I'm sure there were some people in the court of King Ferdinand and Isabella who objected to the cost of the facilities on Columbus's boats."
"I don't recall that there were facilities on the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María."
"My point is that you can't really put a price on the future."
"With all due respect, whenever a politician says you can't put a price on something, you can be sure it's going to be a whopper. The fact is that you can put a price on anything. In this case, it's twenty-one billion dollars and counting, as they say at Cape Canaveral. This is a huge sum of money. What's more, it's being said that your reelection committee should report this as a campaign donation by the American people."
"Fine," said the president, "but let me tell you what I hear when I travel around this country in support of Celeste. I hear people saying, 'This is excellent. This is something we can all be proud of.' "
"Fine. So what are the American people getting for their billions?"
The president pressed play and, straining against the weariness of reciting it all for the two hundredth time, began to tick off the bountiful spin-offs that Celeste would bring to earth: glorious advances in--you name it--machinery lubricants, long-distance telephone networks, sewage treatment, robotic wheelchairs, insulin pumps, pacemakers, research on cures for osteoporosis, diabetes, uh, radiation-blocking sunglasses, energy-conserving air-conditioning . . . too numerous to mention, really.
Banion listened to this life-enhancing litany with the chin-quivering air of a man at pains to stifle a yawn. Sensing that he had better come up with something more millennial than Celeste's contribution to the field of ultrasound scanning, the president gave a gripping description of what the AOR--atmospheric ozone replenishment--module, part of the launch package, would accomplish once it became operational, namely squirting ozone back into the atmosphere to cover the O-Hole, which now stretched from the Falklands to Madagascar, wreaking havoc on plankton and emperor penguins alike.
Still Banion looked faint from boredom. The president dragged out the LAWSI module, the ultimate--if slippery--argument for Celeste's relevance. If in doubt, refer to the large asteroid warning system indicator, which theoretically could detect whether some astral death star this way was heading. The top people at NASA and the Pentagon had been cautioning him from becoming too evangelical on this particular aspect of Celeste. It was tricky business, getting the citizenry in a lather over the prospect of death-by-gigantic-meteor, especially this close to the millennium, when every fruitcake in the pantry was screaming Apocalypse.
"But what," Banion said, "are we supposed to do if we find out that there is an asteroid coming our way?"
"Well, in the unlikely event . . . we'd want some sort of warning."
"I wouldn't. If the world's about to end, I don't want any warning."
"No one is saying the world is going to end," said the president, trying to smile. "This is about beginnings, not endings."
When he began to extol the racial and cultural diversity of the astronauts being launched, Banion interrupted him.
"We'll be right back with the president, after this."
The studio filled with the sound of Ample Ampere's theme music. The commercial showed a basset hound sitting staring hopefully through the glass door of an oven, inside which a juicy roast was baking. The president gestured to his press secretary to approach with his miserable, inadequate excuse as to why he, Leader of the New Millennium, was being made to endure a homey commercial message about the joys of electricity.
A makeup woman, modern-day medic of the TV battlefield, sprang forward to touch up glistening foreheads.
Banion, overhearing a snatch of perturbed presidential conversation, leaned forward and said, "I asked them myself if we could bank the commercials at the beginning and end, but"--he smiled dryly--"it seems I am as helpless as you, sir, in the face of the exigencies of Mammon."
banion's wife, bitsey, reached him in the car on his way to brunch at Val Dalhousie's in Georgetown. The interview had made her nervous. After all, the president was coming for dinner, next week.
"He's going to cancel now."
"No he won't."
"They'll make it sound like a last-minute thing. I've spent the whole week with the Secret Service."
"Bitsey, he's only a president." She would understand. She was fourth-generation Washington, a cave dweller.
Banion hummed along Rock Creek Drive, fairly throbbing with contentment over the entrance he would make at Val's. The car, made in England, had a burled walnut dashboard that shone like an expensive humidor. He could actually make out his reflection in it, and he liked that. He'd paid for the car with two speeches--one of them on how to revitalize the U.S. auto industry--and he hadn't even had to leave town for them. More and more, he hated to leave town. Everything he needed was here.
It was a bright, clear June day. He felt devil-may-care. He had just stuck it to the president of the United States in front of all the people who would be at Val Dalhousie's brunch: senators, Supreme Court justices, editorial-page pontiffs, bureau chiefs, an ambassador or two for seasoning, perhaps the papal nuncio, or at least a tony bishop. They added such nice color in their robes. It gave him a little thrum of pleasure that Bitsey was anxious. Dear thing--didn't she understand that presidents came and went?
What People are Saying About This
A delicious, ingenious treat... and truly joyous page-turner.
On Thursday, April 8th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Christopher Buckley to discuss LITTLE GREEN MEN and ^%=ucase(title2)%^.
Moderator: Welcome, Christopher Buckley! Thank you for taking the time to join us online this evening to chat about your new book, LITTLE GREEN MEN. How are you doing tonight?
Christopher Buckley: Well, it has been a long day, but I am happy to be having my first online chat.
Chad Rapson from Cleveland, OH: Can you point to anything in particular that inspired you to write about the topic of aliens for your latest novel? Just curious, thanks -- and I loved THANK YOU FOR SMOKING!
Christopher Buckley: The monthly mortgage statement -- beyond that I was interested in belief systems. We all know people who believe in UFOs; some of us may even know people who believe in alien abductions. But to date, no famous or prominent people have professed such beliefs, so the thought arose -- what if some pompous big foot Washington pundit suddenly announced that he had been abducted by aliens? To make that plausible, I arranged for him to be abducted not by aliens but by a supersecret government agency that stages alien abductions in order to promote belief in aliens and therefore keep space and military budgets well-funded by Congress.
JWC901@aol.com from NJ: If Christopher Buckley had the power to change two things about current society, what would they be?
Christopher Buckley: Well, I have always wanted to be in charge for just five minutes. It would be like one of those TV shows from the late '50s that I grew up with, where they give you a shopping cart and give you 30 minutes in the toy store. It's tempting to say that I would insist on world peace and harmony. But I think I would settle for making all women look like Claudia Schiffer and making all men, except for me, look like Jason Alexander.
Dave from East Village: Who do you consider the best satirist of the 20th century?
Christopher Buckley: Two words: Tom Wolfe.
Olli from Marlboro, MA: Are all UFO conferences primarily made up of fruits and nuts?
Christopher Buckley: Don't forget the granola.
Milton from Sudbury, MA: Do you think the media, with all these talk shows, all these 24- hour news channels, all these "shock jocks," et cetera, has gotten too out of control? What can we do to stop this and stray from this trend? Any advice to society as a whole?
Christopher Buckley: Damn good question there, Milton. The answer is, you bet. The solution: We should all spend more time reading books and, of course, buying those books at barnesandnoble.com. On a serious note, having watched the TV news cover the Kosovo war, I conclude that had CNN and other media outlets been providing live coverage of the Normandy landings in 1944, we would not have prevailed.
Tobie from Hartford, CT: Did Basquiat really die of embarrassment at the age of 27 when his paintings began to sell (as you point out in a footnote)? Curious where you got that info.
Christopher Buckley: Dear Tobie, Basquiat died at 27 of a heroin overdose. But I think it would have been much more appropriate for him to die of embarrassment.
Jennifer from Ithaca, NY: I am sure you don't have any one person, but did you have anybody in particular in mind when you created the character of John Oliver Banion? Would you consider him a composite character of sorts?
Christopher Buckley: I have found that people are always disappointed when you tell them that such and such was made up. That said, he does bear a slight resemblance to George F. Will. To which I would add that I admire Mr. Will very much, though he does lend himself to a certain amount of caricature, all of it gently intended.
Frederick Vennings from Oak Park, IL: Did you do extensive research for this book? Also, do you spend much time online?
Christopher Buckley: I've spent about six months researching LITTLE GREEN MEN; I read as much UFO literature as I could stand. And I attended two UFO conventions, which I do not recommend to the faint of heart. I drew that conclusion the night of the slide show on cattle mutilation. As the saying goes, over to you.
Rheanne from Springfield, VA: Is it true they are making a movie out of THANK YOU FOR SMOKING? Are you happy with the Hollywoodization of your books? Are you involved with the making of the movie?
Christopher Buckley: The answer is that three of my novels are currently in development. The translation of the term "in development" is as follows: Your book is never going to be made into a movie. Mel Gibson bought the rights to THANK YOU FOR SMOKING; my wife was even more excited than I was at this development. To date I have yet to exchange a single word with Mr. Gibson. But I was amused and delighted to read him in an interview describing a conversation he had had with me. I really did think it should be the other way around, with me telling everyone that my relationship with Mel was too intimate and too deep, too profound, too fraternal to discuss with them. But that's entertainment.
EV from LHP, FL: Do you watch "The X-Files"? Are you more the Mulder type or the Scully type?
Christopher Buckley: Alas, I have never allowed myself to watch "The X-Files." It became the "hot show" about the time I began on this book, and for obvious reasons, I thought it best to deny myself the pleasure of watching it for fear that I might find the temptation to plagiarize irresistible. But I am told that David Duchovny holds a Ph.D. in literature from my alma mater, so bula, bula. Whoops, I was just informed that it is Princeton. Beat Princeton!
Ken from firstname.lastname@example.org: I heard a rumor that Linda Tripp is an alien. Can you confirm that?
Christopher Buckley: I can confirm on an exclusive basis that Linda Tripp's real name is in fact Aluka Walallo from the crab nebula. But then, you already knew that. P.S.: I am not sure her current disguise is working.
Elise from Brooklyn, NY: Do you ever fear that your books will seriously offend some influential people? How do you cope with this fear?
Christopher Buckley: As a satirist, one sort of hopes that one's books will offend influential people. But my track record has been kind of so-so in that department. In this coming Sunday's Times Book Review, the writer Mordecai Richler, who otherwise gives LITTLE GREEN MEN a good review, lamented my lack of meanness. So apparently I am splenetically challenged. Guess I will just have to live with that.
Chris from Raleigh, NC: Were you really the editor of Esquire at the age of 24?
Christopher Buckley: I was the managing editor of Esquire at the age of 24. There is kind of a big difference, especially in the paycheck.
Gregory from Summit, NJ: What do you think are some of the scarier things you see happening to this country as we enter the millennium?
Christopher Buckley: That is a big one. I have a daughter, 11, and son, 7. There are something like 250,000 guns floating around America. There is a large drug-exporting country sharing our southern border that is collapsing from within under the weight of corruption, and a lot of people are telling us that our computers will bring about the end of the world one second after New Year's. As the saying goes, "Homer is dead, Shakespeare is dead, and I am not feeling so good myself." But Americans are an irrepressibly optimistic people, so I have this gut feeling that we will all pull through with flying colors.
Moderator: Thank you for joining us to chat this evening, Christopher Buckley. Before you leave, do you have any closing comments for your online audience?
Christopher Buckley: If you all order LITTLE GREEN MEN within the next 30 seconds, bn will knock off an additional 70 percent, all of which will come out of its profit. Thanks for a fun cyberchat, and may the force be with you.