Buckley and Mailer
The Difficult Friendship That Shaped the Sixties

By Kevin M. Schultz Norton. 387 pp. $28.95

Kevin M. Schultz’s “Buckley and Mailer” would be fun without Kevin M. Schultz. He’s a third wheel. What he contributes to the chronicle of friendship between William F. Buckley and Norman Mailer is what an oversize carry-on bag contributes to an airplane flight. If “Buckley and Mailer” were a Bing Crosby and Bob Hope road movie, Kevin M. Schultz would be along instead of Dorothy Lamour. Athos, Porthos and . . . Schultz.

In fairness, telling the story of two men who liked each other is difficult if you don’t like one of them. Schultz detests Buckley.

“ . . . a salesman’s eyes, as though Buckley were trying to sell something he knew you didn’t really want to buy.”

Kevin M. Schultz explores the relationship between William F. Buckley and Norman Mailer in his latest book. (W. W. Norton/W. W. Norton)

“ . . . not a thinker.”

“ . . . he possessed a dark undertone that championed the continuation of certain unsavory aspects of American life, like its racism and its poverty.”

And Schultz esteems Mailer for the wrong reasons.

“ . . . profound vision and deep insight, both of which Mailer possessed.”

No, he didn’t. He possessed profound feelings and deep talents. Mailer was a poète maudit, attempting (with frequent success) to be accursed and outcast for revealing “certain unsavory aspects of American life,” his own included.

Schultz’s subtitle says it all — wrong. “The Difficult Friendship That Shaped the Sixties.” The adjective, the verb and the nouns are incorrect.

Schultz is a historian of the ’60s. I was there. William F. Buckley did not shape the ’60s and would have been appalled to be accused of it. Buckley, who led conservatism’s long march from cocktail-hour mixed nuts to political main course, shaped the ’80s and, to an extent, the ever-since.

Norman Mailer did not shape the ’60s. Prosperity, pot, the pill and the draft did. Mailer was an artist; he shaped all of creation. But he had little direct influence on we who fancied ourselves members of the Armies of the Night. And Mailer considered us to be lost in the dark, anyway. Buckley and Mailer together can hardly be said to have done what Buckley and Mailer separately did not do.

We liked Mailer, but he wasn’t our left jab to Buckley’s roundhouse right. Mailer was our Villon, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, our Hunter S. Thompson avant la lettre. “We are a savagely mechanical society, poised upon the lip . . . of a spiritual revolution which will wash the psychic roots of every national institution out to sea.”

Was that Mailer accepting the National Book Award in 1969 or Thompson writing “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72”? Schultz can’t seem to tell the difference, either. (It was Mailer.)

When I recovered from the ’60s, I was the editor of a magazine in the ’70s. The National Lampoon was hardly prestigious, and I was of no social consequence, but New York’s world of letters was small back then.

I met Buckley a number of times and owe him a boatload of praise. He was a mainmast of courtesy, an anchor of encouragement and a spinnaker of enthusiasm for whatever one had written. And he knew what it was. The man must have read everything, including National Lampoon. My first contact with Bill was in the mid-’70s, a personal note lauding something I’d done, maybe “Why Fluoride in Water Turns Kids Into Commies.” (Infrequent need to go to the dentist means fewer salutary waiting-room exposures to hard-line Cold War articles in Reader’s Digest.)

Only once did I get a chance to talk to Mailer at length. We were seated near each other at a dinner party. “The Executioner’s Song” had just been published. I asked Mailer if Gary Gilmore’s inamorata, Nicole Baker, had as much je ne sais quoi and you-know-what as it seemed. The answer was: did she ever.

This led to a conversation — conducted over the shoulders and around the heads of Norman’s wife and my date — about the irresistible charms of a certain type of American white-trash girl. Norris Church rolled her eyes. My date announced a headache.

I was putting the date into a cab when Norman capped the evening by throwing a drink and/or a punch (accounts vary) at Gore Vidal. I bitterly regretted missing that. And so, I bet, did Buckley.

“Buckley and Mailer” doesn’t really explain what drew the men together. It wouldn’t have taken Schultz long. But perhaps a modern history professor has no chance, amid the heavy course load of his PhD pedagoguery, to read the great poems of the English language. Four lines from Tennyson’s “Ulysses” tell the tale.

Much have I seen and known; cities of men

And manners, climates, councils, governments,

Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;

And drunk delight of battle with my peers. . . .

Plus both men detested Vidal, who, when drinking, was detestable enough to forge a bond between any objects of his ire.

“Buckley and Mailer” doesn’t really show that the friendship was difficult. In 1966 Mailer wrote a letter to Buckley: “As much as I miss you . . . for the pleasure of a fine evening, I’m not so certain we can have it now, with Viet Nam to pass the wine. . . . That’s the trouble with bad wars. They spoil the continued existence of difficult friendships.”

But enclosed with the letter was a donation to National Review “in lieu of dinner,” and shortly after Mailer was Buckley’s guest on “Firing Line.”

Buckley was seriously unkind to Mailer only once, in a 1962 debate, before they became friends.

And “Buckley and Mailer” doesn’t really tell us how close the friendship was. They were gregarious men. It was a gregarious age. People used to know a lot of people, whether they wanted to or not, which is how I know that a drunk, irked Vidal was detestable. People used to call on the phone. People used to write letters.

Many of the Buckley-Mailer letters were written to decline invitations. The Buckleys can’t make it to the Mailers’ for dinner because “we cannot profane our Saturdays and Sundays by going to New York.” Mailer can’t take a cruise with Buckley because “it looks as tho I’ll be running for mayor.” Buckley and Mailer seem to meet most often on “Firing Line.” Schultz admits as much. “The two men were, however, far too busy to develop a sustained social life together.”

And when Buckley and Mailer are socializing, Schultz interrupts with egregious tutorials on subjects such as the Vietnam War. (Schultz concludes that the war was wrong.) Or Truman Capote. “His pieces often went down like truffles, delightful but unfulfilling.” Truffles are fulfilling enough to sell for $14,000 a kilogram.

I believe it’s customary, at this stage in an unfavorable review, to insert something — anything — complimentary. The prose in “Buckley and Mailer” isn’t academic bad. It’s just bad. “Buckley wrote with a snicker in his pen.” A mental image of candy bars oozing from the nib of a Montblanc has pestered me for days. And there are 27 pages of excellent notes at the end, citing Buckley’s and Mailer’s personal papers and their works and contemporary comment about them. If Kevin M. Schultz had simply published his research, this would be a hell of a book.