Christopher Buckley on His Book 'Losing Mum and Pup'

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 26, 2009

The book is not even out and already, Christopher Buckley says, he is hearing about certain Manhattan society ladies sniffing that he should "never darken their dinner table again."

He sums up his painfully intimate portrait in "Losing Mum and Pup" this way: "He was impossible. She was impossible. And sometimes their impossibilities acted like great magnetic force fields." Which is to say, William F. Buckley and Patricia Buckley had a stormy marriage and an equally volatile relationship with their only child.

The Washington novelist goes beyond a mere warts-and-all rendering of his father, who died 14 months ago, and his mother, who passed away a year before that. He includes such cringe-inducing revelations as how Pup would relieve himself through the opened door of a moving car, or how, while hooked up to an oxygen machine, the ailing icon summoned him at 2:30 a.m. to plan an immediate lunch for "very important players in the conservative community" -- including some who happened to be dead. Why yank back the curtain that far?

"You mean," says Buckley, clad in a peach-and-blue striped shirt, over a bowl of Yucatan tuna soup at a Foggy Bottom restaurant, "am I drawing a mustache on the portrait?" He ponders the question, begins an answer, stops himself, quotes Melville, and tries again.

"They were extraordinary people," Buckley says. "Why anyone should expect extraordinary people to have perfect lives would be beyond me."

At 56, Buckley is the successful author of 14 books, but the shadow cast by the founder of National Review is longer and darker than anyone might have imagined. When Buckley's well-reviewed novel "Boomsday" was published weeks before his mother died, the entirety of Pup's comments were delivered by e-mail: "This one didn't work for me. Sorry."

At the same time, Buckley doesn't hide his awe of a man who, approaching death, wheezing from emphysema, unable to type, dictated to his son the final, perfectly punctuated chapter of a book on Barry Goldwater -- "as if his mind were still a brightly burning fire deep within the wreckage of his body," Buckley writes.

These twin personas -- dazzling intellectual to the outside world, insufferable at times in his New York and Connecticut homes -- are, in the son's mind, intertwined. Bill Buckley was a giant, and such men expect others to bend to their will. "There were times," he admits, "when I happily would have traded them for Ozzie and Harriet."

The book, hammered out in 40 days, was not the one that Chris Buckley intended to write. Under the working title "You're Next," it was supposed to be a yuppie reflection on loss, "my guide to parental death. But my fingers went in another direction. And bang! There you are at my mother's deathbed."

There was even more raw and personal material in the first draft, which Buckley removed at the urging of relatives. That manuscript will remain under seal at Yale until Buckley's own death.

"It's an honest book," says Buckley, editor at large of ForbesLife magazine. "Some people will not like some of it. It is ultimately a loving book. They were complex people -- hell, every set of parents is complex. They just occupied a slightly larger stage."

That they did. George H.W. Bush, for whom Buckley was a speechwriter, called when Christopher's mother died. George W. Bush called when his father died. Everyone who was anyone knew the public Buckleys. But for the kid who found Norman Mailer evaluating his fourth-grade essay at the dinner table, the vantage point was very different.

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