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Overdrive Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Buckley, generally viewed as an ideologist for his long-standing and occasionally quixotic defense of conservatism on principle, in Overdrive defines ideology itself as “a hierarchy of values.” Such a definition explains the apparent absence of any ideology in Overdrive, where the concerns are chiefly about ethical and ontological questions. The author’s well-known public persona, put forward rambunctiously over the years, however, impelled critics to view Overdrive as no more than a vehicle for the author’s image. Initial disclaimers of harboring the least resentment toward Buckley routinely dissolved into parodies of both the man and his style. In reverse counterpart to the boy who cried “Wolf!” too often, Buckley had in the past cried “Sunshine!” so often that even when he was submerged in a gathering darkness, his most eloquent defender, Norman Podhoretz, chided him for showing “all light and no shadow.”

Grounded more deeply than the glitter of Buckley’s life are the two recurring themes in Overdrive: “right reason” and ghosts. Right reason is Buckley’s translation of the medieval Latin recta ratio, whose meaning combines intellectual integrity and simple ethics. Perhaps the unique paradox of Buckley is that his version of intellectual integrity—to which he holds fiercely—is primarily an ethical matter, only secondarily an intellectual matter, and scarcely an academic matter, since it must be manifested through a real application. In fact, Buckley’s wry report on how he preserved his dignity in the face of a hostile audience at Vassar College is perhaps his best example of right reason at work and triumphant. The genesis of right reason goes back to his close-knit family and the Millbrook School, an experience forming the heart of the book.

As for ghosts, Buckley’s most important is Whittaker Chambers. Chambers is no doubt a troubled ghost, but Buckley does not allow himself to entertain the possibility that Chambers perjured himself. His Chambers is a soft-spoken, infinitely weary, benign shade who visits only Buckley’s writing desk. By contrast, Harry Elmlark, the late newspaperman, has so robust a personality that Buckley speaks over his ashes as if Elmlark were alive.

It was no coincidence that the week chosen for the framework of the autobiography, in addition to being a relatively quiet one, was the week in which Buckley was deciding whether to contribute a commentary for the British Broadcasting Corporation’s television production of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945, 1959). Indeed, the “haunting” novel is primarily about decay and death, particularly in the thirteen-hour videotaped version that Buckley watched in a marathon session that week. Buckley, who knew Waugh (another ghost returning), explains his commentary as an intended counterbalance to what he perceived as the production’s anti-Catholicism, in accordance with Waugh’s dictum that the novel was “about God,” not the “fools” who misinterpret Him.

Brushed repeatedly by death, Buckley keeps refocusing on life, which abounds in small pleasures “whose resonances have been insufficiently sung.” This ordinary-extraordinary week brings the news that a friend, the harpsichordist Fernando Valenti, is terminally ill of cancer. Buckley draws a poignant contrast between Valenti’s enfeeblement and the vibrancy of the music he created. Then Buckley comes home to find his newly arrived houseguest, David Niven, still vivacious and irrepressible (as captured in a Buckley vignette) but already having “a most fearful time controlling his voice.” (The fact that Niven was then suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, known at the time of publication, is left out.)

Other guests arrive, one of whom has a bad back. For the first time, Buckley— still vital, active, taking hare-brained moonlight sails in midwinter—casually remarks, “I have chronic sinusitis, Dupuyter’s contracture, and skin cancer, so I suggest that...

(The entire section is 990 words.)