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We are not alone - but we are very funny

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LITTLE GREEN MEN By Christopher Buckley Random House 288pp. $23.95

The key to an April Fools' Day prank is plausibility. Tricksters crave that perfect blending of the ordinary and the ludicrous that can spin victims into a moment of comic panic.

Years ago, a friend of mine and I taught at a conservative private college in the Midwest. One semester, he hung a series of his quiet, muted paintings of the Maine coast in the school lobby. My stage was set. Using office stationary, I wrote him a letter - from the chairman of the college - complaining about the shockingly pornographic nature of his paintings. I concluded gravely, "The trustees will be meeting soon to discuss your employment status."

Kids: Don't try this at home. My friend swallowed it hook, line, and sinker - and then swam off in a rage toward the chairman's office. Fortunately, someone caught him, or the trustees would have soon met to discuss my employment status.

April 1 is obviously Christopher Buckley's favorite holiday, too. Today the comic author releases a hysterical novel called "Little Green Men." It's a prankster's greatest fantasy.

The story opens on Washington's most pompous and feared political commentator. Every Sunday morning, John Banion runs the capital's most powerful elected officials through a brutalizing interrogation on his top-rated TV show, sponsored by a leading maker of electrocution chairs.

Senators and presidents sweat under Banion's owlish gaze, but "in a medium glutted with sound bites, people were happy to come on and have 20 minutes of national TV exposure all to themselves, even if Banion sometimes extracted an admission price of flaying them alive, on air."

Far from Banion's rarefied world, Nathan Scrubbs is "waiting for his computer to advise him that somewhere in Indiana another housewife had been abducted and sexually probed by aliens in a flying saucer."

Poor Scrubbs works for a supersecret government organization called MJ-12. His job is to keep "the taxpaying U.S. citizenry alarmed about the possibility of invasion from outer space, and therefore happy to fund expansion of the military-aerospace complex."

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