Book Review: 'Losing Mum and Pup,' by Christopher Buckley
LOSING MUM AND PUP
By Christopher Buckley
Twelve. 251 pp. $24.99
"That was such a nice surprise, your thinking to mention me when I pulled away last week," William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote me in 2004 after I had reported his retirement from National Review. More than 12 years had passed since our first meeting, shortly after which Buckley had given me, as he had so many others, my start in journalism. He had arranged for me to publish my first article, in National Review, and secured a grant from the Historical Research Foundation for me to begin work on a biography of John Mitchell. There had been periodic contacts, including an hour-long interview marking ("Who said I was celebrating it?" he quipped) the great man's 75th birthday and bloody marys to kick off an unforgettable four-course lunch at the Buckleys' East 73rd St. maisonette. I received a few encouraging letters and, later, e-mail messages, characteristically garbled ("I amnot drunk -- I type this way"). But I was never an intimate or protégé. "Thank you, my friend, and come soon to see us," he wrote in that last letter. For complicated reasons, I never did; nor did I seize upon his offer to visit him and his wife, Pat -- whom I never met -- at their home in Stamford, Conn.
After Buckley died, in February 2008, at the age of 82 and less than a year after Pat's death, I swelled with regret at having squandered my opportunity to see the Buckleys dans leur élément. With the publication of "Losing Mum and Pup," a family memoir by the Buckleys' only child, novelist Christopher Buckley, I feel now as though I know what I missed. Breezy, witty, savvy and perceptive -- and occasionally bitchy and biting -- "Losing Mum and Pup" displays all the hallmarks of the younger Buckley's acclaimed fiction. As testimony to what Pat and Bill Buckley were really like, the book bears supreme witness and delivers many laughs; as an account of what it's like to watch one's parents suffer and die, it is moving to the point of tears.
Still, there is something troubling about this book, a sense that it is unduly unkind to -- and thus unworthy of -- its subjects. "Christo," as Buckley called his son (whom I've met once, perfunctorily), clearly anticipated that a large number of his father's legion of fans would regard the publication of this memoir as something "other than an act of love," as the author told Vanity Fair. This is owing to the book's primary focus on Pat and Bill's final days, when they were aged, sick, grief-stricken, crotchety, sometimes mean-spirited or even enfeebled by dementia. It's a pitiful contrast to the days when the Buckleys were the toast of Manhattan and Gstaad, Switzerland, where the polymath conservative controversialist and the tart-tongued socialite repaired each winter to entertain the likes of Princess Grace and David Niven. As Christopher writes: "People just wanted to be around them. They were the fun Americans: the cool intellectual who wrote spy novels on the side and his beautiful, witty, outrageous wife."
That the Buckleys were real people, with unattractive and hurtful flaws, should properly be recorded in any memoir about them, as with any famous figures. Bill, the peripatetic lecturer, "elaborately subcontracted" the duties of raising, clothing and feeding his son, and made no appearances at the hospital when Christopher, at age 11, spent three weeks there. It also turns out, according to Christopher, that the famous cosmopolitan and yachtsman, who had his limousine custom fitted so he could spend midtown traffic jams typing out his syndicated column, haggled over luggage fees at the Swissair check-in counter and refused to pay more than nine bucks for a bottle of wine. He was also prone, shockingly, to urinating in public spaces.
Likewise, Pat, a Canadian heiress who became one of New York's pre-eminent hostesses and philanthropists, a fashion icon forever deflating her husband with the evening's most memorable bon mot, would accost house guests, after too much wine, with dubious factual assertions. Her rudeness could be withering: She once chased off her granddaughter's sweet young friend, a member of the Kennedy clan, Christopher reports, with an unprovoked disquisition on the Martha Moxley murder case (in which a Kennedy cousin was convicted). "There had been so many rocky times," Christopher writes, adding that his parents didn't speak to each other "about a third of the time" during their 57 years of marriage.
Such anecdotes should have sufficed to cut the larger-than-life Buckleys down to size. But Christopher serves no legitimate literary or historical purpose by documenting, with lurid granularity, his father's sad decline, when the diseased and dying widower was suffering from emphysema, diabetes, sleep apnea, skin cancer, heart trouble and prostate problems. Thus we are treated to pathetic scenes of the octogenarian Buckley falling asleep over his dinner plate, projectile vomiting, absently wandering hospital corridors, mistaking his DVD player for a thermostat and demanding to have lunch with people long dead. The recounting of such tales tells us more about the son than the parents.
It is as if Christopher, having said all the right things at the memorials he dutifully organized, now wants to show the world his parents at their very worst. He acknowledges having "spent a good deal of my life . . . trying to measure up to my father"; that he felt wounded by his father's inability in recent years "to compliment something I'd written, unless it was about him"; and that Buckley's extraordinary speed in writing, in contrast with the son's hard labor, once led Christopher to gaze upon "the .22-caliber rifle mounted on the wall, wondering if I could get the barrel in my mouth and pull the trigger with my big toe." Father, a devout Catholic, and son, a defiant agnostic, waged their "own Hundred Years' War over the matter of faith" and exchanged, by Christopher's count, over 3,000 contentious letters and e-mails. And when the aged Buckley abruptly announced he had something important to disclose, the son's anxious first thought, he confides, was: "You're leaving all your money to National Review?" Avid followers of the Buckleys will recall even more points of contention than Christopher enumerates.
Christopher Buckley admits that his own sins "are manifold and blushful, but callousness [is] not among them." Readers may beg to differ. The very attributes he lists when articulating, in kinder, gentler moments, what made his father "great" -- unswerving faith and generosity, "deep and abiding" love for family -- make it impossible to imagine the elder Buckley ever penning such a book about his son, though one senses William F. Buckley, too, would have regarded the source material as rich and abundant.
James Rosen is the State Department correspondent for Fox News and the author of "The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate."