THE REDHUNTER

A Novel Based on the Life of Senator Joe McCarthy

By William F. Buckley Jr.

Little, Brown. 421 pp. $25

In 1991 retiring history professor Harry Bontecou bumps into Tracy Allshott, his college roommate from Columbia University in the early days of the Cold War. Almost half a century earlier, they had been a mismatched pair: Bontecou, a conservative who had learned about Stalin's brutality while serving in Europe at the end of the war, and Allshott, a fellow traveler if not an actual Communist who worked on his tan in Hawaii during the conflict and afterward thought that the greatest threat to world peace was U.S. imperialism.

At their impromptu reunion on the other side of the Cold War, it quickly becomes clear that Allshott hasn't wasted a minute's reflection on his previous political commitments; all he can think about is that Bontecou had gone on to work for Joseph McCarthy in the brief but frenzied days when the Wisconsin senator's anti-communist crusade gripped the nation. "Senator McCarthy," Allshott sputters, "was, by the consolidated holding of history, the most dangerous American of the half century, a savage, unscrupulous, fascistic demagogue--"

"Tracy," Bontecou interrupts. "Would you please go away?"

William F. Buckley Jr., of course, has been urging liberals to do the same thing ever since he published his first book, "God and Man at Yale," in 1951, when he was 26 years old. Now Buckley has written a novel (his 13th), "The Redhunter," that uses McCarthy's life as the basis for a fictional exploration of one of the most contentious eras in U.S. history. It's an intriguing idea. Buckley was a young conservative intellectual in a period when that phrase was considered an oxymoron. He knew McCarthy and in 1954 (with his brother-in-law Brent Bozell) published a book called "McCarthy and His Enemies," which offered some criticism of the senator's methods but stoutly defended McCarthyism as a necessary crusade to eradicate communism from American life.

Using a novel to slip the straitjacket of nonfiction while at the same time employing some of the recently disinterred secrets of the Cold War to lend an air of actuality to the project could make for a bracing book, a deeper psychological plumbing and finer-grained portrait of the time than we have yet had. Unfortunately, this wan novel is not that book.

In writing it, Buckley seems to have had three aims: (1) to prove that McCarthy was right and that the liberals who said he was merely chasing ghosts were wrong; (2) to humanize McCarthy; (3) to tell the story of how Bontecou (a Buckley stand-in) became attracted to and then broke with McCarthy while maintaining his belief in the necessity and righteousness of McCarthyism. Alas, the book, while mildly interesting, is largely a failure on all accounts. Fifty years after the fact, Buckley is no more reflective than Allshott. He retreads many of his arguments from "McCarthy and His Enemies," throwing in references to the U.S. government's super-secret project Venona to decode Soviet spy cables in order to buttress his case. Venona, however, proves exactly the opposite of what Buckley claims. Rather than establish that the government was crawling with communists, Venona shows that by 1950, when McCarthy made his charges, all the secret communists in Washington had already been shown the door.

As for literature, Buckley might have produced an engrossing tale about politics and friendship if he had chosen to develop the Bontecou-Allshott relationship, but the book's communists are as cardboard as any characters out of social-realism agitprop. Buckley develops two wildly improbable relationships for Bontecou, involving incest and a Soviet spy, that manage to be both creepy and unbelievable but still fail to spark the plot to life.

Buckley's orotund style might sharpen his essays, but it dulls his novels: Lovers exchange pillow talk as flat as Al Gore on a bad day. And for a historical novelist, Buckley is rather careless about details. He repeatedly refers to Gus Hall as the leader of the American Communist Party in the late '40s--a position Hall didn't reach until 1959. He refers to President Eisenhower in the middle of a section set in Truman's presidency. He implies that Sen. Pat McCarran broke ranks with McCarthy and voted for his censure, when in fact McCarran died before the vote took place and in any case would have sooner turned up naked on the Senate floor than vote against a fellow arch anti-communist.

In the end few stood by McCarthy, and none more steadfastly than Buckley. It's easy to dismiss his allegiance as misguided. Some will no doubt say the same about this novel, in which loyalty is the chief virtue. And also the chief limitation.

Michael J. Ybarra, who is writing a book about former senator Pat McCarran and the origins of McCarthyism.