Garry Wills's memoir, "Outside Looking In"

Thursday, December 16, 2010; 6:28 PM


Adventures of an Observer

By Garry Wills

Viking. 195 pp. $25.95

"I am not interesting in myself," Garry Wills declares at the outset of "Outside Looking In." American readers have steadfastly disagreed over the last five decades, during which time Wills, an ex-Jesuit seminarian turned journalist and professor, has published nearly 40 books on politics, religion and history, almost unfailingly to critical acclaim. All have been thoughtful and provocative; many became bestsellers; two won the National Book Critics Circle Award; and one - "Lincoln at Gettysburg" (1992) - received the Pulitzer Prize.

Such a mind can hardly be uninteresting. Yet Wills, now 76, proceeds here as though he believes it is, allotting little space in this slender memoir to self-examination. His subtitle, "Adventures of an Observer," neatly captures the author's view of himself, Zelig at the ramparts ("I have been able to meet many interesting people and observe fascinating events, partly by being unobtrusive"), while the main title defines the volume's readers, who are at all points barred admission to Wills's complex interior.

Instead, "Outside Looking In" functions like an erudite jukebox, summoning amusing, tragic and telling anecdotes at a rapid clip, each well told, all enriching our understanding of postwar America's politics, passions and pieties. Chapters are named, guilelessly, for the famous people ("Nixon," "Carter and others," "Clintons") and momentous events ("Dallas" for the Jack Ruby case, "Turbulent Times" for the civil rights and antiwar protests) the author has covered. This structure is ill conducive to narrative, though, and sometimes makes for disc-jockey segues like "I met another great singer" and, not too many pages later, "Another singer I got to know well. . . ."

Retracing his old steps, Wills shadows the "new" Richard Nixon across New Hampshire in late 1967; jousts with Lillian Hellman over the Alger Hiss case (in which Wills, angering liberal friends, concluded that the New Dealer was an "obvious" Soviet spy); catches the pre-presidential Jimmy Carter in a lie; and elicits a brushback from Martha Stewart ("Oh, cut it out") at the Clinton White House, after Wills asked her to critique a table setting.

Separate chapters assay William F. Buckley, Jr., an early mentor and later antagonist (after Wills's politics drifted leftward); Natalie Wills, who seems never to have minded when her husband bolted from town for the next Esquire assignment, leaving her with the kids; and Jack Wills. Only this latter chapter, which enumerates the many failings of the author's father - a charming but pugnacious gambler and philanderer - brings us anywhere near Garry's inner self. That Jack, in irritation, once bribed his bookworm son $5 to forgo reading for a week was one of many experiences leading Wills to acknowledge that "I was often an outsider in my family."

From his silence on the point, Wills, we must conclude, has never suffered any qualms, like those Janet Malcolm anatomizes in "The Journalist and the Murderer," about the moral ambiguities inherent in the journalistic enterprise. Indeed, missing from these pages is any indication that Wills has ever felt fear, shame or regret in his entire adult life. Readers seeking a comprehensive autobiography must accordingly cobble it from this and previous books, like "Bare Ruined Choirs" (1972) and "Why I Am a Catholic" (2002), in which Wills recounted his boyhood and religious education; and "Confessions of a Conservative" (1979), an earlier memoir that chronicled his apprenticeship at National Review and subsequent philosophical evolution, and which featured a similar, but richer, portrait of Buckley.

Still, "Outside Looking In" is essential for readers interested in this prolific and immensely gifted writer - notwithstanding his protestations that they should not be. We learn, for example, how much stock Wills places in his doctoral training, at Yale, in the classics. "Greek," he writes here, "is the most economical intellectual investment one can make. On many things that might interest one - law and politics, philosophy, oratory, history, lyric poetry, epic poetry, drama - there will be constant reference back to the founders of those forms in our civilization. . . . It helps, in all these cases, to know something about the originals."

And there is also a clue, in a chapter about Wills's travels to opera houses, to what led him out of the seminary and into the arena of reportage and commentary that Buckley called the controversial arts - and it had as much to do with "Rigoletto" as with the record of our times. "I loved," Wills writes, "the many uses of the human voice." James Rosen, a Fox News correspondent and author of "The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate," is at work on a book about the Beatles.

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