HIGH JINX. By William F. Buckley Jr. Doubleday. 261 pp. $16.95.
WILLIAM BUCKLEY's spy stories, like most works by public figures who turn to fiction late in their careers, are read as much for revelations about their author as for pure novelistic pleasure. This is reasonable curiosity about someone whose public personality has always been so opaque. It is hard to miss Buckley's intelligence, but his facetiousness suggests that he doesn't want to be taken wholly seriously. He can be shockingly rude while expressing his disdain with icy perfection of manner. He is clearly interested in ideas but shows little concern with persons, at least in public. Will the real William Buckley please show his face?
Although they beg to be read as autobiographical, the seven novels he has written in 10 years tell us little more about him than his television appearances and his other books.
Blackford Oakes, the blindingly handsome American agent whom readers have already met in earlier novels, is the hero of High Jinx. Obviously he is related, at least collaterally, to his creator, for like Buckley he is a graduate of Yale and has attended "an exclusive British prep school," here upgraded to a public school, Greyburn College (in case we miss the first mention, we are told another seven times that he is an Old Boy of Greyburn).
Other characters are slightly disguised friends of the author, and some appear without masks, such as his brother-in-law, Brent Bozell, with whom, we are told, "Bill Buckley wrote the book McCarthy and His Enemies." President Eisenhower, the brothers Dulles, and most of the Politburo are here under their own names and, for all I know, sounding like themselves. Oakes, as was Buckley, is in his late twenties at the time of the novel (1953-54).. Alas, he signally lacks the sparkle of his model.
Oakes serves more as viewpoint than character, and the action picks up immeasurably once we move from him into the larger world, when McCarthyism was rampaging at home and abroad we were worried about the division of Berlin, relations with the United Kingdom, and the lethal fight for power in the Kremlin between Beria and Malenkov. Not a lovable period of history but full of drama, and here the book really succeeds.
THE IMPETUS for the plot is the failure of Operation Tirana, an attempt to liberate Albania, annihilated when each of the five landing parties is met by superior troops knowing every detail of their plans; the whole landing force is publicly executed. Oakes' determination to discover the source of the leak of information is stiffened when he finds evidence that one member of the combined American- British-Albanian forces is still alive, although Oakes has seen photographs of his dead body.
This is a novel of espionage not suspense, so it probably doesn't matter that we know halfway through the book what the method of getting information has been, and we suspect long before that who is responsible. For me the real excitement, and it is considerable, is over Malenkov as he gradually out- maneuvers Beria and makes plans for his first visit to the West, and over the scrappy knowledge that the West had of the machinations then controlling Soviet policy. It's all painfully plausible except the suggestion that the wives of the Politburo occasionally attend their meetings. This part of the novel works so well that a reader may wish that Buckley would simply drop the trappings of the spy story.
Oakes' good looks are of little use in getting him into the bedroom, and as usual in Buckley's novels, there is scant titillation from what his characters would probably call sexual congress. When a man thinks of his mistress as "a very special vessel of delight," you're safe to give the book to your Aunt Thelma. Erotic details are scarce, except for coitus interrupted by a knock on the hotel door by room service bringing food on which the lovers fall with more appetite than they do on each other. Can Buckley be serious?
Perhaps because he is relying on prep- school memories, Buckley is manifestly ill at ease with English manners and mores, particularly those of schools and colleges, which here all seem to have been manufactured in New Haven. It just isn't good enough to give characters names like Mrs. Floreat England, and most of the other jokes fall even flatter because the author nudges us to tell us how uproarious the other characters find them. But there is a certain endearing charm about Buckley's howlers and awkwardnesses, as if he didn't really care about such things. Readers may be reminded of that splendidly negligent novelist Ouida, whose enthusiasm for universities also outran her practical information, as when she wrote of an Oxford boat race that absolutely everyone in the shell rowed fast but Stroke rowed fastest.
Anyway, this is a good romp through the history of the early '50s, even if it doesn't take us far in seeing what really is important to its author.