Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 684

William F. Buckley, Jr., paused to examine his life at a peak moment, choosing a single week in the late autumn of 1981. It was a week not dominated by major world events, so that the everyday life of this politically conscious figure, and his more purely human consciousness, comes to the fore. The form of a seven-day slice of life is more novelistic than memoiristic; the refusal to rearrange life dramatically, instead cherishing its mundane texture and spontaneous moments of reflection, suggests the film documentary more than a novel—hence the subtitle. ( Earlier, Buckley employed the same form in Cruising Speed: A Documentary, 1971.) Like a documentary, Overdrive leaves in all Buckley’s weaknesses and warts. It becomes an apologia only when reviewing verbal duels that have vexed the author in the past and continue to haunt him; thus, he gives his side of the acrimonious disputes with Gore Vidal and Franklin Littell. Another important aspect of the memoir as document is the self-explanatory role of the many letters he incorporates verbatim.

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Buckley freely admits that he eschews introspection and that his life could be called unexamined. He explains the “commotion” of his life (the experiences of just one week require him to draw vignettes of some two hundred people) as arising from a counterpoint between the search for intellectual virtue and the fear of boredom:The unexamined life may not be worth living, in which case I will concede that mine is not worth living. But excepting my own life, I do seek to examine, and certainly I dilate upon, public questions I deem insufficiently examined.

The narrator appears to be much like the public Buckley. He delights in the deadpan, outrageous statement. Thus, he begins his vignette of Howard Hunt with the words, “Howard was my boss during the nine months I spent in Mexico working for the CIA.” Nevertheless, the personality that emerges is more relaxed than that of the public Buckley.

There are hasty nods to almost every living soul Buckley encounters in eight days; such sketches do not rise above mere name-dropping, often of obscure people. When Buckley takes the time to describe in anecdotal detail, he can produce memorable portraits. Of the two politicians, Ronald Reagan and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who are extensively portrayed, Reagan is flat and wooden, but Moynihan is vibrant and believable. More inspired are sketches of people in the arts: for example, master harpsichordists Rosalyn Tureck and Fernando Valenti and actor David Niven.

The most vivid descriptions center on Buckley’s boyhood days at the Millbrook School, with portraits of his father, the headmaster, Edward Pulling, the other masters, his brothers, and schoolmates. The foibles of the masters are drawn with a true novelist’s eye; a fine contribution to the schooldays genre is Buckley’s mad naturalist (and sometime baby-sitter) who had a special fondness for snakes. The section on the Millbrook School was originally published as a separate piece titled “God and Boys at Millbrook.” It enters Buckley’s documentary in connection with a trip on the Orient Express that caused him to miss the school’s fiftieth anniversary. The Orient Express excursion (entering the memoir as he dashes off an article on it) in turn irresistibly reminds him of a hair-raising, week-long trip on a World War II troop train: “So to speak, the Upstairs and Downstairs of train travel. . . . It is terribly vexing that it isn’t obvious that the one was ultimately more pleasurable in memory than the other.”

Unlike the blase, pedantic, ideological, public Buckley, the inner Buckley views much with unblushing delight and appreciation: his family and familiars, his car, peanut butter, harpsichords, boats, the sea, a good play, and every solid, mundane thing that warms a life. The “hard-working snob” (a jibe he has gleefully taken over from one of his opponents) is surprisingly unspoiled. Neither ideology nor specific ideas are dear to Buckley the author of Overdrive; rather, the flow of ideas as part of living is important. In Buckley’s personal documentary, there is no idea without a life-form, or at least something concrete, attached.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 75

Burner, David. Column Right, 1988.

Dunne, John Gregory. “Happy Days Are Here Again,” in The New York Review of Books. XXX (October 13, 1983), p. 20.

Ephron, Nora. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII (August 7, 1983), p. 7.

Judis, John B. William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives, 1988.

Koenig, Rhoda. “Dictated but Not Read,” in Harper’s Magazine. CCLXVII (October, 1983), p. 72.

Podhoretz, Norman. Review in Commentary. LXXVI (November, 1983), p. 66.

Winchell, Mark Royden. William F. Buckley, Jr., 1984.

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