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Short Takes

By Christopher Buckley
Twelve, 318 pp., $24.99

Christopher Buckley has been touted as a modern-day Jonathan Swift so often he's begun to believe it. Accordingly, in "Boomsday," the author of "Thank You for Smoking" and a host of other mordant satires presents a modest proposal of his own.

The novel's heroine, named Cassandra but at heart an avenging Fury, has a bone to pick with her parents' feckless generation. Still fuming 10 years after her father misappropriated her tuition money, depriving her of a Yale education, Cass, now working at a Washington, D.C., public relations firm by day and blogging up a storm by night, proposes a scheme for keeping the Social Security system from going down with the S.S. Baby Boom: The government should pay boomers to kill themselves when they hit retirement, sparing their children the tax burden of supporting them. Every hypocrite and buffoon in Washington -- which is to say, everyone in Washington -- goes racing for the nearest microphone, and a carnival of posturing and double-dealing ensues.

Buckley's dyspeptic caricature of politicians and their enablers isn't particularly subtle, but then Washington isn't a particularly subtle place. His new publisher, Twelve, promises us 12 books a year that "illuminate, inspire, provoke, and entertain." Well, one out of four isn't bad.

The First Man-Made Man
By Pagan Kennedy
Bloomsbury, 214 pp., illustrated, $23.95

Years before Christine (neé George) Jorgensen became a tabloid sensation as the "sex-change girl," a well - born and deeply discontented Brit completed the same journey more quietly and on the opposite track. Through illicit hormone treatments and plastic surgery, still in the 1940s the stuff of science fiction, Michael (formerly Laura) Dillon made the grueling transition from butch Oxford coed to bearded, tweedy physician. Contentment remained elusive. Dillon ended his days in a Tibetan monastery, of all places, still yearning for a transcendence of the material shell that might finally make him happy.

Dillon was an ambiguous character in more ways than one. Though terrified of exposure, he wrote books that left trails of telltale hints. A social pariah, he was also an aristocrat who knew how to pull the right strings to achieve an unprecedented identity reversal.

It's a can't-miss story, to which Pagan Kennedy, "gonzo science" writer, adds dramatic tension and a pinch of voyeuristic spice. She may overestimate how far we have evolved from the days when biology was destiny, but we have come far enough to read Dillon's saga as tragedy rather than farce, which is progress of a sort.

Lost City Radio
By Daniel Alarcón
HarperCollins, 257 pp., $24.95

We have been here before, in the totalitarian brave new world of "Lost City Radio." This self-defeated place has no name, though that of the author's native Peru will do as well as any other.

The heroine of the novel, Norma, is her unhappy country's earth mother of the airwaves. On her radio show she reads aching messages from people looking for loved ones separated over years of war and disruption or, more likely, "disappeared" into the grasp of a vicious regime. What her listeners do not know is that Norma's husband, Rey, is among the missing. Rey has a second, secret life, which Norma suspects, as a member of the underground insurgency, and another about which she knows nothing until a boy from the exotic interior makes his way to the city seeking her help.

An expansive political fable, an urgent mystery, a story of doomed love: Daniel Alarcón has chosen no easy assignment for his first novel. Fortunately his talent is equal to the task. No one in the compromised world of "Lost City Radio" is as innocent as we suppose or as guilty as charged by a paranoid dictatorship. Alarcón relates this haunting tale in shades of gray, breaking the rules for concocting a fable but honoring those for conveying truth.

Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.