OH DEAR, to use one of William F. Buckley Jr.'s favorite exclamations. Just when I was getting to like journalism's most ubiquitous conservative, he comes along with this. A diary it is, of seven days in the life of himself, of whom he is full. Overdrive offers everything you ever wanted to know (did you, really?) about what BB eats for lunch (tunafish covered with cheese--trMes goyish), about how his wife Pat falls asleep with the television on, about his stretch limo and his driver and his dog, for chrissakes! Not to mention his calls from the man he refers to as his Commander in Chief, his Nicholas Nickleby evening with C in C's son and daughter-in-law, right down to the intimate details of his love affair with his particular brand of dictating machine.
When parts of this book first appeared in The New Yorker, I thought it was a joke, a Buckley parody of how some leftist might view Buckley's preoccupation with material possessions and his aristocratic lifestyle. Alas, it's not an intentional parody, although there are, swimming in this sea of trivia, some amusing anecdotes, such as his account of the time he and Norman Mailer were almost run over on the street by Pat Moynihan.
BB tells us midway through the week that he decided to "experiment, once again" with a book-length, week-in-the-life memoir because it is "an unusual device for autobiographical introspection."
That's right, babes, he pulled this stunt before, in 1971, with Cruising Speed. Don't remember it? Well, Saving The Queen it wasn't. Now we have Overdrive-- same title metaphor, same stretch limo (an updated model), many of the same elegant though vaguely boring friends. Maybe we should be thankful for the latest version--the earlier book featured three dogs on the first page, one named Foo.
To be sure, some changes have taken place since Cruising Speed. Nixon was the Republican in the White House then; Buckley seems more comfortable with the current political scene. Also, in the earlier work, he was going several times a week to a personal fitness trainer for weight-lifting and self-defense (boxing) training. By Overdrive he has dispensed with the he-man regimen; he simply keeps a loaded pistol in his desk for protection. A trifle unsportsmanlike, BB. Then too, Overdrive is less concerned with the younger generation (in 1971, it was all worked up about Vietm) and more concerned with the ill- health of his older friends. In the end, the impression is of The Ultimate Preppy growing somewhat pouchy under the eyes.
But "autobiographical introspection"? As the book opens, BB, napkin tucked under chin to catch tuna droppings, muses rhapsodically about the vista outside his Connecticut window. Later, BB attends a concert by his favorite keyboard artist, Rosalyn Tureck, and rhapsodizes about her. At various times, BB writes a column, BB tapes a TV show, BB goes to church, BB rehashes an argument with Time magazine, BB quotes extensively from his previously published reminiscences of his prep school, BB and Pat are driven in their limo from their perfect Stamford mansion to their perfect Manhattan pied Ma terre, where they prepare a perfect dinner party for Vice President Bush.
Gosh. What an exciting life. What Buckley needed was a snappy rewrite by an experienced People hand. Instead he gives us a record, albeit excruciatingly detailed, of his everyday life, not an introspective review of it. It could be that he is incapable of true introspection, as he himself admits. "I have enough of everything material," he writes, "but not the reliance to do without distraction; so that I would not cross the street without a magazine or paperback, lest the traffic should immobilize me for more than ten seconds. The unexamined life may not be worth living, in which case I will concede that mine is not worth living."
Now let me tell you the most awful part of Overdrive. After plowing through a third of it, I realized that while I was bored to tears, I was also . . . (deep breath here) quite envious. I mean, who wouldn't want a stretch limo in which to dictate one's letters? Who wouldn't want Rosalyn Tureck playing at one's parties? Who wouldn't want to have one's own magazine? This man Buckley, this infuriating, smug sophisticate, this insufferably unctuous writer and lecturer ($4,000 for a speech! In Toledo!) lives the compleat capitalist life, and he loves it, and I'd love a cook and a chauffeur too, plebeian clod that I am.
The most interesting portions of Overdrive deal with Buckley's voluminous correspondence. I bet he could compose a terrific how-to book on writing and replying to letters. Indeed, a larger selection of his letters (this book contains only snippets) might be as illuminating as a description of his method of preparing them. He should also be given credit for the felicitous way in which he manages to praise both pals and ideological enemies; Buckley comes across as an exemplary friend. What's more, as an Author's Guild member, I personally am delighted with his plans for a new service that will enable us to sell copies of our out-of-print books. Perhaps Overdrive eventually will be in that category. As for Buckley's memoir efforts in general, I much preferred Atlantic High. Hoist the sails again, BB, and hold the tuna.