Losing Mum and Pup

Christopher Buckley prizes being debonair and puckish the way Dolly Parton has long valued being a 40DD, and for pretty much the same reason. Having established up front that boredom isn’t in the cards, he and she can both talk about whatever they like. His comic Washington novels often wear thin on me, especially when he lets a larky premise do all the work and treats the rest as mere typing. But his Beau Brummell jests about politics and other train wrecks are the main reason I regularly check out Tina Brown’s Daily Beast website, his perch for current events commentary since last fall.

As you 2008 nostalgists may remember, that’s when Buckley got blackballed from the once prestigious pages of a certain well-known right-wing journal. What got him shown the door to the conservative doghouse was his — puckish, debonair, but heretical — endorsement of Barack Obama for president. That National Review had been founded by one William F. Buckley, father of modern conservatism’s intellectual grid — and also of Christopher, not that he’s ever whined in public about what must have been a whopping case of sibling rivalry — only drove the GOP frothosphere even battier. (And yes, I know: the left-wing version is no George Bernard Shaw play, either. But at the time, excitement at Obama’s prospects had temporarily turned its froth into drool.)

Well aware that only his family name made his apostasy newsworthy, Buckley genially acknowledged that his late father wouldn’t have been thrilled. Even so, there was one Oedipal question he chose not to raise, much less answer. That was whether he’d have had the nerve to out himself as an Obamacon if WFB, as everyone called him, had still been imposingly and loquaciously with us.

Or maybe I mean the heart to, since good old cowardice and a less familiar compassion play leapfrog in most of us once our parents are elderly. That’s only one tension among several on display in Losing Mum and Pup, the younger Buckley’s affecting, spryly written, but often peculiar new memoir of his parents’ deaths just ten months apart, in April 2007 and February 2008.

When puckish and debonair are your calling cards, going intimate is bound to involve some sheepish preliminary patter. Sifting his motives in the preface, Buckley starts with a disclaimer: “I’d pretty much resolved not to write a book about my famous parents.” Yet here he is with one whose alacrity could impress Joan Didion, and why? “I’m a writer, for better or worse, and when the universe hands you material like this, not writing about it seems either a waste or a conscious act of evasion.”

Though he shuns the dismal word therapeutic, that’s clearly a major item on the agenda. “I find myself, as the funereal dust settles and the flowers dry, wanting — needing, perhaps more accurately — to try to make sense of it and put the year to rest, as I did my parents. Invariably, one seeks to move on.” All well and good, even if the arch phrasing doesn’t quite disguise the banality. Nonetheless, you may end up wishing he’d done a little more mental sifting before he elected to share the process with us.

On the surface, Losing Mum and Pup is very gracefully managed. Glowing reviews are a virtual given, not only because tales of bereavement rarely get panned (nobody wants to look heartless) but because this one’s tone is engagingly short on using a full string section when a jaunty clarinet will do. The book’s submerged incoherence is all in Buckley’s conflicting priorities. His urge to salute his “larger-than-life” parents — who plainly deserve it, whatever you think of “Pup’s” high-Republican ideology — keeps being undermined by his far more vivid memories of watching his father, in particular, grow smaller instead: debilitated, querulous, demanding, exasperating.

This is about as common as experience gets, of course, which is one way Buckley rationalizes regurgitating it half digested. Just another boomer dealing with the inevitable, he’s quick with advice that recasts his loss as Our Guide to the Reaper. “But — remember, when it’s your turn to do all this — tax-deductible,” goes one chipper admonition, briskly depersonalizing his two pages about choosing and pricing WFB’s coffin. Besides letting him tap-dance past mawkishness a bit more strenuously than he may realize, the pretense that he’s sharing his unwelcome expertise for our benefit also keeps him immune from any charge of unseemliness in going public so fast with the inside scoop on his parents’ decline.

The problem’s that they were, well, uncommon, a truth their son’s understandably happy to brag up at the same time he’s busily universalizing his own case with jolly Post-it notes about what we should do when the time comes. He can’t have it both ways, though. Reading about William F. Buckley’s Ritalin-popping, increasingly disoriented dotage simply isn’t the same as reading about someone unknown’s. Not least because WFB valued few things more than presenting an impeccably dapper face to the world, it’s the egghead equivalent of tabloid voyeurism about “‘s Brave Last Days.”

I’m reasonably confident Christopher Buckley intended nothing of the kind, but something most mourners learn is that their judgment’s going to be erratic for a while. He hasn’t, turning Losing Mum and Pup into a mix of indiscretions of debatable value, jocosity about his new status — “one advantage to orphanhood, however bittersweet, is that for better or worse it’s your call now” — and glimpses of the more wrenching, less performance-distorted book he may get to someday.

Mum was fabled Manhattan socialite Pat Buckley, who was fairly imposing in her own right. But as the book opens, six months as an invalid, along with “sixty-five years of smoking,” have left her considerably less than that: “The chic and stunning Mrs. Buckley lay on her bed, shrunken, eyes open and unseeing, a thick plastic respirator tube protruding from her mouth, making a loud, rhythmic, bellow-like noise as it injected and drew air from her lungs.” Having rushed back from a campus conference on “Christopher Buckley’s Washington” to say goodbye, Christopher also makes the decision to take her off the respirator, a task we’re left to gather WFB is better off being spared.

With unsettling candor, her son records the first words he spoke after coming back to Mum’s bedside. “I forgive you,” he blurts, if any Buckley can blurt. But in a rather more significant omission, he never gets around to explaining just what he was forgiving her for. Instead, the haphazard recollections that follow swing unpredictably between resentments shorn of specifics — “However outrageous the provocations that had driven me, hot-faced, flushing, furious, to the keyboard” to upbraid her by mail, for instance, or “Mum and I were not speaking at the time, owing to a prior disgrace of hers, a real beaut even by her standards” — and giddy filial awe: “She was so, so beautiful, Mum.” Your move, Dr. Freud.

We do learn that Pat Buckley was a magnificent dinner party fibber, inventing preposterous untruths on the spur of the moment just to make the air crackle. But her “fluent mendacity” only triggers a sudden gush of superlatives: “She was really, really good at it. She would have made a fantastic spy. She would have made a fantastic anything. She was beautiful, theatrical, bright as a diamond” — and so on, to an effect we can’t help but notice is just as rhetorical as the cloudy business about her provocations and disgraces. Meanwhile, that loaded word forgive goes on sitting there as inexplicably as Poe’s raven, since no maternal sin we’re filled in on is weighty enough to account for it.

Much more of the book, however, is devoted to Buckley’s recollections of tending to “Pup” in WFB’s final months after losing his wife of 57 years. That leaves their son taking care of an octogenarian whose complicated domestic needs were a “full-time job” for Pat Buckley even when her husband was in the prime of health, a role that chafes Christopher considerably.

Then again, grasping that it’s a role brings out the entertainer in him, as good a way as any of keeping your spirits up. Reprinted at length here, his daily email circulars to the eminent likes of Henry Kissinger on WFB’s condition keep gloom at bay with comic turns: “Until now, I had never imagined that my happiness could be contingent on the color of my father’s urine. (My life used to be more exciting, really.)” Two bulletins later, we learn along with Henry that “We (Stockholm syndrome first person plural) are neither better nor worse.” Note how attractively both examples turn the put-upon sender’s frustrations — Stockholm syndrome, really? — into banter.

He can’t help entertaining us with his father’s crotchets in old age, either, from his indecipherable emails (“Daer cgurisito, Am sO hpinyg” for “Dear Christo, I am so very happy”) to his increasing self-medication (“Pup’s daily intake of pills would be enough to give Hunter Thompson pause”). Not to mention his disconcerting late-life habit, “including from his limousine, in traffic,” of opening a moving car’s door to pee. At one point, an addled WFB, just back from the hospital, summons Christopher at 2:30 a.m. to arrange a lunch — “tomorrow” — for “some very important players in the conservative community,” including a National Review associate publisher who’s been dead since 1998. Even granting the strain his son was under, his exasperated suggestion that they invite Barry Goldwater looks a tad cruel in print, which is why it’s nice to hear WFB didn’t fall for it.

To be sure, such stuff is mingled with warm and unquestionably genuine admiration — “Pup was a great man,” we’re firmly told, even if great men do “tend to be the stars of their own movies” — and any number of testimonials that we aren’t reading Daddy Dearest by a long shot. Yet even his son’s fondest anecdotes have a way of confirming the quote from Carlyle he cites to explain WFB’s charm: “Let me have my own way exactly in everything, and a sunnier and pleasanter creature does not exist.” Inordinate enough to get him to skip his own sister’s funeral to collect one more award, WFB’s vanity even precludes taking pride in his son’s not inconsiderable literary career: “In recent years, he had found it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to compliment something I’d written, unless it was about him.” (Like this book, one wonders? Take that, Pup.)

There’s also, quite evidently, a lot Buckley’s not telling us about his parents’ marriage. That would be his business if coy asides like “Even when Mum wasn’t speaking to him — which was about a third of the time” and a mention that “about the early 1970s, turned me into a de facto marriage counselor” didn’t keep calling attention to what we aren’t being told. Wanting to know more makes us the prurient ones, not him — and yet he’s turned the ideal-couple facade they both took care to preserve into one more marital Potemkin village just the same. Granted, he may think he’s struck the right balance between tact and honesty. But inadvertently or not, the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t act ends up belittling them while letting him sound superior and injured at once.

No less reductively, Buckley’s exclusively personal focus turns the book into the equivalent of a reminiscence of Baryshnikov that leaves out ballet. In his public role as conservatism’s conscience, crypt keeper, and sommelier rolled into one, WFB stayed active up to the end: books on Reagan and Goldwater, the long-lived “On the Right” column whose final installment was an impressively crisp analysis of the linguistics of a Hillary Clinton–Barack Obama debate. While his son rightly admires his industry, he might as well have been writing Hallmark cards (“Hpinyg Boeufdei to Wron”) for all we hear of the endeavor’s point.

Yet if there was a tragic dimension to WFB’s final years, it was that he’d lived long enough to see the conservative establishment whose foundation he’d laid come apart. In the months Losing Mum and Pup covers, was there really no father-son table talk about any of this — the disastrous Bush presidency, the upcoming election? No sunset hopes or laments, no tart appraisals of Cheney, Iraq, or Barack and Hillary? After all, we are talking about William F. Buckley, one of the most famously voluble and opinionated thinkers of the past century, and his son isn’t exactly indifferent to politics, either. But nothing polemical rears its ugly head here, which must mean one of two things. Either Christopher Buckley is bowdlerizing for his own purposes, or in fact father and son disagreed sharply enough to make discussing current events too unpleasant for both.

If it’s the latter, that’s a more interesting story than the one he’s shared. Or should I say the one he thinks he’s shared? Despite the stylistic aplomb and elegant manipulation of his own persona that reminds us Buckley does come from, in a sense, one of America’s great showbiz families, the right word for Losing Mum and Pup‘s lack of perspective and chaotic priorities is manic. For my money, its hidden — and, for obvious reasons, inadmissible — theme is his relief at being free at last of being William F. Buckley’s (and Pat’s) son. That’s why I won’t be a bit surprised if his next novel turns out to be a real beaut.