Bill's Reviews > Losing Mum and Pup

Losing Mum and Pup by Christopher Buckley
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Sep 12, 09

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Christopher Buckley's bittersweet memoir of his final year with his stylish mother and famously conservative father lends a human scale to a couple that so often appeared larger than life. Personally, I was never particularly enamoured of William F. Buckley, Jr.'s politics or even his books, despite being piqued by God and Man at Yale and amused on occasion by the capers of fictional CIA agent Blackford Oakes. However, from the time I was a small boy who loved big words, I was flattered to be compared favorably to the legendarily eloquent Buckley, for whom it was perfectly natural to toss off a word like "postprandial" when one intended to take a stroll after a lunch. (Despite his legendary command of the English language, it was apparently his third language.) In addition, although no sailor myself, I have always had an outsized admiration for anyone who could captain or navigate a wind-borne vessel. Ironically, I have not read Buckley's celebrated sailing books, but I have admired his exploits on the water based on second-hand accounts. Finally, anyone who is able to make a good living through his pen earns a certain amount of admiration from me. As Samuel Johnson famously said, "No one but a blockhead would write except for money."

There are few more difficult ways to grow up than as the son of a famous father and a socialite mother. Winston Churchill is perhaps the most notable example, having admired from afar his imperious, syphilitic father and fashionable, flirtatious mother -- reportedly a consort of no less than than the King of England. Christopher Buckley, similar in kind if not degree, seasons his admiration for his famous parents with a clear-eyed and painful acknowledgment of their many shortcomings public and private. Patricia Buckley, once one of New York's most celebrated hostesses, apparently frequently found it impossible to distinguish between truth and fiction on topics as diverse as her reasons for not finishing her college education at Vassar to visits from the Royal Family in her youth.

Christopher's Buckley's relationship with his mother was often stormy, but his complex blend of admiration and antagonism toward his father is the potent cocktail that really fuels this story and carries it to its poignant conclusion. Bill Buckley's Olympian detachment from quotidian concerns resulted in over 90 books, thousands of pages of articles, hundreds of television appearances, and friends and acquaintances among the most celebrated persons of the day. Coupled with Buckley's steadfast convictions, conservative views, and Catholic certitude, Buckley's sense of himself could be alternately entrancing and insufferable. And his personal recklessness in his boat and in his car whether his family was aboard or not bespeaks a level of self-absorption that contrasts sharply with moments of familial generosity. Ultimately, of course, laboring as an author in the shadow of your more famous father, subject to criticism alternately enthusiastic and capriciously cruel, is a cross no son should have to bear, even if it is assumed voluntarily.

Christopher Buckley, despite the traces of bitterness that lace this confection, writes with wit, grace, and self-awareness of his attempt to reconcile himself to the complex emotional inheritance bequeathed to him by his parents. In doing so, he seems ultimately to come to terms with the repeated betrayals inflicted on him by his prevaricating mother. The wounds left by a half century of fighting and making up with his father require a slower reconciliation, brought about in part by his father's slow physical decline and the constant devotion it evoked. To his credit, the senior Buckley, whose unfailing mental acumen carried him through the completion of biographies of Goldwater and Reagan even as he succumbed to kidney failure, diabetes, skin cancer, and general physical enfeeblement, was mostly good-humored and gracious toward his son as he approached his end. In the end, the younger Buckley's vocation as a humorist and the elder Buckley's personal civility and generosity shine through the tangled emotions of this real life soap opera featuring one of America's first families.
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message 1: by Suzanne (new) - added it

Suzanne You need to read WFB's sailing books. Airborne is the best one.

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