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Wry stuff

Buckley and Markoe aim for smart laughs

by Mark Bazer

WRY MARTINIS, by Christopher Buckley. Random House, 291 pages, $22.

MERRILL MARKOE'S GUIDE TO LOVE, by Merrill Markoe. Atlantic Monthly Press, 177 pages, $21.

[Guide To Love] Christopher Buckley, the editor of Forbes FYI, has written three novels and frequently contributes to the New Yorker. Merrill Markoe has authored two previous books; she writes a regular column in New Woman and has won four Emmys as a writer for David Letterman. In short, both of these funny writers have accomplished a lot.

Yet it's impossible to read their new books without feeling the shadow of their famous relationships. Buckley is the son of William F. Buckley, the intellectual godfather of the modern conservative movement. And from 1978 to 1988, Markoe was the girlfriend of Letterman (who -- it can safely be said -- isn't as funny as he used to be). In the "Tips on Dating a Crazy Person" chapter of her Guide to Love, Markoe notes that her past lovers have "tended toward the wounded, brooding, loner category." You can't help thinking, "Dave?" And when Buckley dedicates his collection of essays, Wry Martinis, to "Mum and Pup," well, you know exactly who he's talking about.

In Markoe's case, you may finding yourself wishing Letterman didn't exist. Her book's such a riot on its own that wondering what might refer to Dave only takes away from the laughter. Buckley, however, uses his family to his advantage. Essays about his mother as a fashion icon and the mansions he grew up in are among his best.

Wry Martinis collects Buckley's short pieces written from 1981 to the present for publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal to Allure. As with most humor collections, this one is uneven. His "Shouts & Murmurs" columns from the New Yorker succeed about half the time. He's at the top of his game creating a fake program schedule for a real-life conservative cable network. Buckley, quite openly a Republican, begins the channel's programming at 5 a.m. with "Prayer (mandatory)." For a 4 p.m. panel discussion on Red Dawn, the 1984 movie that had Communist paratroopers invading a Colorado high school, his listing reads, "Michael Medved asks: Could it happen again? A Colorado school principal argues that students today are well armed enough to repel any invasion; N.R.A. chief Wayne LaPierre disagrees."

But Buckley's premises aren't always strong enough, or his humor isn't absurd enough, to make these pieces work. A real-life quote from William Shatner about his inability to operate a VCR is worth a joke or two, but Buckley creates a whole essay around it. He's more skilled at telling a true story in a witty and intelligent manner. Thus, his fictional piece about Russia's selling the remains of Lenin isn't as funny as the essay he subsequently wrote about how the original piece tricked anchorman Peter Jennings.

His New Yorker profile of Ann Landers, where the advice columnist got in hot water for her derisive words about the pope, is probing, honest, funny, and fun-loving. And if there's one thing Buckley excels at, it's making Tom Clancy look like a fool -- in four essays that have a section all to themselves, "Homage to Tom Clancy."

Markoe has smaller fish to fry than bestselling novelists or national news anchors. She attends and attacks those "How To Fall in Love" seminars you see advertised in the back of, well, er, the Phoenix but would never dream of going to yourself. "How To Turn a Man into Putty" and "Prepare to FIND (and Marry!) Your PERFECT MATE in Six Months" are two she goes after with ruthless cynicism. Sure, Markoe picks easy targets, but it's hard to complain when the results are hysterical. And she doesn't merely describe these seminars; she uses them as launching pads for her comically depressing views on love.

Only toward the end, when she wanders into the realm of animal love (she owns three dogs) does the book become a bit tiresome. Unless you find canine eating habits irresistible, skip the two animal chapters and pick up with her strong finish, "What the Movies Taught Me." Describing a scene in Cool As Ice starring Vanilla Ice, she writes, "One evening Vanilla is out dancing on his front lawn, as is his wont, when he sees the girl having a fight with her current boyfriend. This leads him to speak the words that will one day take their place in the pantheon of classic love-movie lines: `Drop that zero and get with the hero.' " From this, Markoe learns, "Do not rule out freaks."

Of course, by the end Markoe has ruled out just about everyone. But for those who haven't had the most luck with love (and who has?), this guide is a perfect antidote to all the seminars, movies, and mothers telling us we better hurry up and find mates.