The blurb burbles that "Who's On First," Buckey's third spy novel is as much fun as "Saving the Queen," and as seriously entertaining as "Stained Glass."
The latest story again pivots on Blackford Oakes, a laid-back CIA man for all crises. Though Oakes doesn't sweat, inhale deeply, urinate or do other mundane things, he does a helluva job in the U.S. race in the '50s to be first up with a satellite. His abduction of Viktor Kapisa, a key Russian scientist, and his wife, hoping to delay the Soviet timetable, is the high spot of the book. In the battle of wits, Oakes is opposed by Boris Bolgin, the Soviet interest in Paris, a canny veteran of potshot and putsch. bIn the end, of course. Sputnik is launched first, but how it happens is only one of several surprises served up.
Buckley crafts well. His yarn is no yawner. The plot keeps moving and what the story lacks in verisimilitude it compensates for in vivacity. The tradecraft of international spydom is on the mark (he knows what "sweeping" a room means and is at home with "case officers" and "safe houses"). The action is superior to his rather cardboard characters, two exceptions being Hunston Hirsch, a Rabelaisian scientific type, earthy and erudite, and Bolgin, the Russian.
Deficient characterization is mitigated somewhat by having Ike (who appears as something of a dolt who relishes Zane Grey), Allen Dulles and Dean Acheson appear as supporting types. Dulles' and Acheson's colloquies, though they tempt Buckley to vent his two-bit words, are delightful discourses that contribute to the action and are the funniest and wittiest parts of the book.
Though there are no outright epiphanies, Buckley guns in with some good lines. Thinking of the gauche French daring to offer advice, Oakes recalls Eddie Condon's memorable words, "Do we tell the frogs how to jump on grapes?" In another place we find Bolgin and an associate roaring over this quote (Buckley's?) from the National Review: "The attempted assassination of Sukarno last week had all the earmarks of a CIA operation. aEverybody in the room was killed except Sukarno."
Despite its virtue, I had trouble getting into "Who's On First," not because the plot took so long gestating, but because of the thicket of prose with which Buckley surrounds it. His paragraphs are page-size in which semicolons flourish like weeds. And when Buckley likes a word, he hugs it to death. Two of his favorites are "mordant" and "transpire," only the first of which he uses correctly. Among others that obviously delight him but impede the plot pace are "rodomontade" and "ignoratio elenchi." It's too bad the text was "unsurveilled" (his word) by the editors against such blemishes.
Aside from structure and word choice, Buckley's sentences often are pedestrain, ponderous or too unclear even to be ambiguous.
"And Blackford tended to judge quicly, though his judgments, while always impatient, were not always reliable."
"Rufus would be slightly pale, slightly heavy, slightly formal, and -- he supposed, several years having gone -- by slightly older."
"Oakes ordered a second coffee and the bill in French that obviously suffered from underutilization compounding undercultivation."
After a few of these, one first wonders where the editors hid when the manuscript descended, then decides to overlook the presentation and ride with the plot.
Which, as I have said, is cracking good. For readers seeking the satori of titillation, however, the sex is as thin as poorhouse toast. Oakes' girl, Sally, is a sterotype whose heart belonges to Jane Austen. Oakes finally beds down Frieda, the fiancee of Theo, his dead Hungarian friend, in a scene smaking of Frank Harris. Later, Oaks: "Was that me, or Theo?" Freda: "It was you, acting for myself. And acting also for Theo." (!) It's nice to be needed.
In one of his films, W.C. Fields is trying to fend off a bustling female:
"How about dinner sometime?" she asks. He nods neutrally. Encouraged, she follows up, "Shall we say sometime soon?" "No," Fields retorts, "let's just say sometime."
With "Who's On First" behind me, will I read Buckley's first two novels?