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'Losing Mum and Pup' by Christopher Buckley
Some years ago, when they still lived in Malibu, the late John Gregory Dunne and his wife, Joan Didion, entertained a prominent magazine journalist and author at dinner. It was December and, afterward, they invited their guest to accompany them to their daughter's grammar school Christmas pageant.
FOR THE RECORD:
Christopher Buckley: A May 6 review of Christopher Buckley's memoir "Losing Mum and Pup" in the Calendar section included a statement that Buckley has an 8-year-old son whom he has refused ever to see that should have been attributed to court papers filed by the son's mother in a child support dispute. —
This being Malibu, many of the youngsters on stage were the children of leading singers and film stars, which must have lent more than the usual piquancy to their amateur performances. At a certain point, Dunne noticed his guest's hand stealing down into her oversized purse and withdrawing a notebook. As he recalled it, his own hand shot over to grasp the visiting writer's wrist. "My daughter," he whispered, "is not material."
Christopher Buckley, former vice presidential speech writer and author of a notable series of topical comic novels, suffered the loss of his celebrated parents -- the great conservative thinker and writer William F. Buckley and socialite Patricia Taylor Buckley -- and reached an opposite conclusion in "Losing Mum and Pup": "I'm a writer, and when the universe hands you material like this, not writing about it amounts either to waste or a conscious evasion."
Not necessarily -- particularly when a writer attempts and fails the difficult task of coaxing irony and grief into coexistence. This is a son who clearly cared about his rather distant, extraordinarily difficult parents, though the reader never quite discovers why -- other than the fact that his mother (referred to as "Fortress Mum") was beautiful and dressed extremely well and his father wrote at blazing speed and taught him to navigate a sailboat by the stars. We also discover that Mum was a hostess who could turn vicious in her cups and regale the company with titanically self-aggrandizing lies. Pup, "the Lion of the right," seems somehow cowed and ineffectual in her presence and is bereft without her care, despite a large, doting household staff. Toward his author son, he is, by turns, distantly affectionate and hyper-competitive, mostly the latter. A good portion of the memoir is given over to a catalog of his final decline's infirmities, including prostate problems that lead him to urinate out the open doors of moving cars and limos.
For an author ostensibly concerned with setting straight the historical -- as well as emotional -- record, Buckley can be oddly careless of fact. In the omniscient authorial mode he mocks his paternal grandmother's insistence that the family was related to Robert E. Lee. "My uncle Reid, the family historian," he writes, "has laid that pretty fiction to rest. The Buckleys are related to Robert E. Lee in roughly the same sense that every human being on the planet is related to the procreative hominid lady who lived in Africa 100,000 years ago. Reid did, on the other hand, establish that Mimi's grandfather was decorated for bravery fighting for Lee at Shiloh. . . ." Uncle Reid may have identified an ancestor decorated for service at Shiloh, but it certainly wasn't under Lee. The Confederate Army of Mississippi, which engaged U.S. Grant's Army of West Tennessee at that awful place in April 1862, was commanded by Albert Sidney Johnston. Lee wasn't appointed to command the Army of Northern Virginia until two months later. The local parish priest who obliged William F. Buckley and his "Hispanic staff" with a "private Latin Mass each Sunday" is described as "complaisant," when one strongly suggests the author means "compliant."
These seem niggling points, perhaps. Yet this writer is taking a great deal on himself as the arbiter of his family's memory. Those familiar with Buckley's satiric, Washington-centered comedies of manners also may recall that he has all the Anglophilic compositional tics of what might be called the faux-Tory style of middle-brow American commentary. Thus, the frequent recourse to Waugh, Wilde and Bertie Wooster and, in this memoir, a numbing number of references to the panoply of titled English aristocrats who apparently stalked his parents' ambit. (Poor them, as Wilde's very Irish description of the fox hunt springs to mind: "The Unspeakable in pursuit of the Uneatable.")
Let's go with this tendency for a moment, though, as the passage from Waugh that really suits "Losing Mum and Pup" most aptly is one of the pivotal scenes in "Brideshead Revisited," in which the flamboyant aesthete Anthony Blanche descends uninvited on Charles Ryder's gallery exhibition of his South American paintings. Blanche has heard his old university friend's new work described as "unwholesome" and has delightedly come to see for himself. After close inspection, he declares the paintings a form of ingratiating impersonation: "Charm," he tells Ryder, "is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art. . . ." The paintings, he says, are "charm again, my dear, simple, creamy English charm, playing tigers."
Playing at tigers is more or less what Buckley is doing in this pseudo-confessional memoir, which is, at the end of the day, a bit of a tease. We're told several times that his parents, though apparently utterly enmeshed with each other, spent a considerable percentage of their many years together not speaking. Why -- money, politics, other women, other men? No answer.
The author glancingly refers to his resentment over the fact that, years before his death, his father had drafted him into being his marriage counselor. Why -- what did that entail and what, beyond lingering filial resentment, were the consequences?
There's a particularly revealing anecdote toward the end of the book involving William F. Buckley's flirtation with suicide as his infirmities mounted. Given his routine abuse of prescription sleeping medications, it would have been a simple enough matter, but he was restrained by his Catholicism. His son, moreover, reports that, on more than one occasion, he was tempted to assist his father but inhibited by possible legal consequences. It also appears that the elder Buckley sought clerical advice on whether the church's prohibition might be finessed.
However, when William F. Buckley's biographer, Sam Tanenhaus, informed Christopher that he intended to write about similar conversations for the New York Times, where he serves as editor of the Book Review, the son threatened to cut off his access to the father's papers. Tanenhaus relented and Christopher informs readers of "Losing Mum and Pup" that he "can't wait to read" the biography.
Control and the confessional impulse abide uneasily in a single manuscript, which is what makes this memoir -- for all its apparent candor -- hollow and unsatisfying. Christopher Buckley is curiously silent, for example, concerning the influence of his outsized parents and their melodramatic marriage on his own somewhat messy personal life.
The younger Buckley is estranged from his own wife and mother of two of his children. He has an 8-year-old son, by another woman, whom he has refused ever to see. His father, meanwhile, excluded the boy by name from any share in the estimated $30-million estate he left mainly to Christopher. This grandson, William F. Buckley specified, was to be regarded as "having predeceased me" -- in other words, as dead. In all the descriptions of his father's intolerance for any impiety toward the Catholic faith and his preoccupation with the virtues of the "Christian gentleman," another author might have wondered over the absence of charity and reconciliation in such a bequest.
Such an absence seems at least as significant as a propensity to urinate out the door of a limo -- or, perhaps, they're all of a piece.