Back in 1967 I saw a then popular Off-Broadway play called “MacBird'” an obvious yet entertaining look at the administration of the then decreasingly popular President of this country, Lyndon Johnson. As is the case with most political satire, the references were not oblique or vague: the representative characterizations were intended to be obvious – and were. Although not a favorite of the critics at the time, that play written by Barbara Garson (and starring the then little known actor, Stacey Keach in the title role) was a big hit with theater goers who were opposed to the war in Viet Nam and to the administration that seemed to be perpetuating and growing it. Satire can be expressed in many forms. Gary Trudeau has developed it into a comic-strip art form in “Doonesbury” and Stephen Cobert’s “Cobert Report” is having a similar (but differently twisted) impact on television political satire. And now comes a literary version of intentionally obvious, exaggerated and at times truly laughable political satirization of the current administration in William Hart’s newest novel, “Operation Supergoose.”
The “hero”, a Lt. Ernest Candide is super strong – owing to a sequence of mishaps that rendered him a true “secret weapon” in the arsenal of the American military. (Shades of the Six-Million-Dollar Man!) The President’s name is Twofer – his father, an earlier President is a part of the story as well. His Vice-President, Chain Dickey, is kept in a state of suspended animation until his brain is needed. The country they live in is called Plunderland and if there is any mystery or confusion about what administration or what international doings or domestic manipulations are being satirized, they are completely unintentional. It is clear after the opening paragraphs, that a part of the humor is that the re-namings are not intended to fool anyone or to conceal anything about the story or intended humorous telling of it. At times I laughed, and at others, I was saddened. I was reminded of an English professor many years ago who defined “Black Humor” as being the experience where someone sticks a knife between your ribs – then twists it so that it tickles. The details of the plot are a cross between “MacBird,” “Doonesbury” and the New York Times. It is about real things but presented in a way that makes them seem, at least briefly, surreal.
The question is: Does what might be presented as a series of four framed daily cartoon strips hold up as a verbal narrative in novel form. The answer, I am somewhat surprised to find myself saying, is “Yes,” but with one rather massive caveat. This is a book that may well be found entertaining by those who are in agreement with it’s clearly defined point of view and either ignored or loathed by those who disagree. During that performance of MacBird back in 1967, a handful of patrons walked out after the first act. Obviously people who did not realize what they were walking in to and were offended by the way LBJ and his cronies and family were presented – with thin disguise. Likewise, this book, though cleverly written and a quick read in 202 pages, will not change any body’s mind about anything. Those who agree with Hart’s not-so-subtle satire will appreciate the humor – those who don’t will either avoid reading it, will put it down soon after beginning it or will finish it so as to be able to pan it with the full experience of having read it.
The knife is quickly inserted and twisted. It hurts and tickles at the same time. In doing so, Hart reminds us that humor is a valuable coping mechanism for those of us who have managed to sustain access to it. I am glad to have been so reminded!