By Christopher Buckley
Published May 6, 2009
Reviewed June 15, 2009
Ever since the death of William F. Buckley Jr. in February 2008, his son Christopher appears to have a target painted on his back. Although he chiefly works as a humorist, with satirical government-based novels such as “Supreme Courtship” and “Thank You For Smoking,” a rather vocal group seems to think he is under a moral obligation to preserve the family legacy in the ways they deem appropriate. When he joined the ranks of Republican intellectuals endorsing Barack Obama for the 2008 presidential election, the backlash was so voluminous that he was forced to resign from the very magazine that his father founded and which he still owns one-seventh of.
But that excoriation pales in comparison to some of the comments directed at his latest book, “Losing Mum and Pup,” which has been criticized as full of selfish, petty smears against parents who are no longer around to defend themselves. Once again, the reaction is overblown and completely missing the spirit of his actions, as it’s hard to think of a book that feels more like saying a fond farewell. Mixing his trademark wry humor with sentimental honesty, it’s not an insult but a tribute to people who may have been difficult to live with but never impossible to respect or love.
Between April 2007 and February 2008, Buckley suffered the loss of both his parents – a loss whose difficulty was compounded by their public reputations. His father was credited as the founder of modern conservative thought (as well as National Review and “Firing Line” and over 50 books); and his mother was “the chic and stunning” Patricia Taylor Buckley, queen of New York socialites for decades. They were people of immense reputation and charm, and Buckley was their only son – a relationship regularly strained by faith, black humor and intellect.
Buckley traces over these difficult months, from his mother’s deathbed to the final memorial service for his father in Connecticut. He was pushed into a variety of roles, ranging from nursemaid to an often obstinate patient to literary executor to organizer of elaborate memorial services (the book has regular asides on the minutiae of cremation costs and military honors). Along the way we also see how his parents’ loss touched the political world, with vignettes on his father’s close friends from Henry Kissinger to George McGovern.
Detractors will make the claim that Chris Buckley is kicking out the pedestal his parents were placed on, and to some extent this is correct. He does not skimp over his mother’s acid tongue, treating us to uncomfortable dinner scenes where she humiliated her granddaughter’s best friend and refused Ted Kennedy a car (“There are bridges between here and Gstaad”). His father is shown as distant and difficult, not at his son’s sickbed or graduation and reviewing “Boomsday” in a uncomplimentary sentence (“This one didn’t work for me. Sorry”).
But none of these comments really ever comes across as mudslinging, more presenting pieces of what made his parents such a complicated package. As Buckley himself says, “larger-than-life people create larger-than-life dramas,” and he more than counters their dramas with the reasons they were larger than life. Pat Buckley could be cruel but she was also a hostess without peer, backing every one of her husband’s ventures without hesitation (after first trying to talk him out of it) and ripping into anyone who dared to insult her son. And WFB was for all his faults “the world’s coolest mentor,” teaching his son how to navigate by the stars and then pushing his limits by sailing in a borderline-monsoon storm.
And the complaints by the indignant reviewers also gloss over the fact that this is probably Buckley’s best-written book to date. He has publicly stepped away from “channeling” his father’s ghost, but between the brisk precision of the word choice and the speed of composition (he has said he wrote it in 40 days) it’s easy to picture WFB offering a spiritual boost. Opening with an Oscar Wilde quote on losing ones parents (“looks like carelessness”), literacy permeates the text with references on everything from P.G. Wodehouse to Joseph Conrad to the labors of Hercules. His mother’s ghost also makes an appearance with various barbs to break the tension: “Oh, do pull yourself together and stop carrying on in this fashion.”
But it’s in the moments where he realizes his looming orphanhood that “Losing Mum and Pup” takes on a singular power, needing no narrative devices other than straight reaction. He may portray his parents as weak but he is in almost as much pain, seeking to rationalize his own thoughts and leave things on as even a keel as is possible. The instance where he gets the call on his father’s death is painfully immersive, showing a war with instincts and emotions and wondering if he should continue what he was doing before, the taxes: “Maybe if I do them, this won’t have happened.”
If there are conflicting opinions about “Losing Mum and Pup,” they may be justified as Buckley’s own opinions were conflicted – but anyone who despises him for daring to show William and Pat Buckley as flawed is blind to the wash of affection he shows them, and the affection they had for each other. “Losing Mum and Pup” is a beautiful piece of work, funny and touching, giving a view of Buckley’s own coming to terms and the universal pain of saying goodbye to your parents.