William F. Buckley, Jr. Buckley, William F(rank), Jr. (Vol. 7) - Essay

Buckley, William F(rank), Jr. (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Buckley, William F(rank), Jr. 1925–

Buckley, an American editor, author, and lecturer, is an eloquent and persuasive speaker and writer. He has taken a stand against such formidable forces as Yale University and Pope John XXIII. Buckley is a controversial spokesman for conservatism, often criticized for his views but also respected by his opponents. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

As the journalists who write about him, the liberals who debate him, and any number of others are forever discovering, there is a world of difference between the public William F. Buckley, Jr., with his polemics and his sometimes insufferable air of indomitability even in defeat; and the private William F. Buckley, Jr., who is one of the world's most gloriously engaging men, without a nasty word in his vocabulary.

As a result, Buckley tends to be portrayed as a paradoxical figure, each side of his personality making the other more difficult to understand. How, in God's name, the Left asks, can such a likable man hold such hateful politics? Some of the paradox disappears when you realize that it is precisely in God's name that Buckley does it. His views on America's role in the world are, simply, outside the realm of reason, which is to say he is one of those Catholics who take it on faith that if God had meant for the world to have Communists, He would have told us so. (As for purely domestic issues, Buckley isn't unreasonable at all. Wrong, maybe, but not unreasonable. He doesn't fit his caricature as a racist who is unsympathetic to the poor….)….

But still, there is an image problem. Buckley just does not behave appropriately for someone who wishes to be taken seriously as a Christian Crusader. His boisterous good humor, and pranks—such as the recent phony Pentagon papers—have led some of his nonadmirers to conclude that he is merely a dilettante and a showman, more concerned about having a good time than he is about even his own stated cause….

More important than the occasional obligatory polemic, [Cruising Speed] provides a rare public view of how and why Buckley's mind works the way it does; and more often than not it is a delightful thing, because for him cruising speed is just slightly less than the speed of sound. (p. 134)

Larry Dubois, in Harper's (copyright 1971 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the November, 1971 issue by special permission), November, 1971.

Execution Eve is more fun to read than to write about—if it were less amusing it would be easier to review. Actually, the book is serious. Yet the style is so incisive and astringent that the effect is cathartic as well as revealing. One feels as if one is participating in a sharp and witty, though far from frivolous, conversation from which it is difficult to tear oneself away….

[Buckley] manages to throw political realities into relief without losing sight of moral imperatives and, in the process, as Francis Bacon put it: "to excite the judgment briefly rather than to inform it tediously."…

He loves what he writes about, and makes you temporarily love anything he loves. (p. 1182)

Marvelously articulate, he surely cannot be charged with aposiopesis. Yet I sometimes think that beneath the columnist, painter, harpsichordist, editor, etc. there is a philosopher clamoring to be let out. But then Buckley might feel as Oliver Edwards did: "I have tried in my time to be a philosopher, but cheerfulness was always breaking in." It does, however mournful the occasion, however gloomy the prospect. Indeed, Buckley has re-elevated the art of eulogy to the high standard from which it had long ago fallen. So much so, that I am firmly resolved to leave this world before he does, for his eulogy is bound to be much better than mine. (p. 1184)

Ernest van den Haag, "Cheerfulness Is Always Breaking In," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1975; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), October 24, 1975, pp. 1182, 1184.

["Saving The Queen"] is rather unthrilling, seldom boring but seldom taut with tension. It is smartly plotted, witty (of course), sharply detailed, an agreeable if not compelling romp. Buckley originally subtitled the book "An Entertainment," and if you greet his modest appraisal with equally modest expectations, the book is a modest success. However, I must confess that spy/mystery/detective novels give me as much pleasure as back issues of Redbook, wildlife documentaries, essays by Benjamin DeMott, Arpino ballets, Gene Shalit in the Critics' Corner … pretty low on my pleasure scale. I don't even like Raymond Chandler. So even if it achieved its Platonic ideal, "Saving the Queen" would for me never be more than a glittery trifle.

Where this novel differs from the Chandler-inspired spy novels is in the moral world the hero inhabits. The protagonist of "Saving the Queen" is not an existential shuffler, doing his dirty work out of some opaque moral imperative, but an agent with a clearly defined assignment and a clear sense of the enemy. "That's the one intellectually interesting aspect of the whole enterprise," Buckley said. "Can one write a plausible novel which is pro-CIA." Pro-CIA novels hardly constitute a thriving genre, a datum not lost on the author. (pp. 58-9)

Mr. Buckley's forensic skills are better served in "U.N. Journal," a chronicle published by Putnam earlier this year of his tour of duty as a delegate to the United Nations. It's his most fully achieved work, the one in which his keen observant eye best serves his moral concerns….

It's no small achievement that after years of column writing, Buckley has kept his idiosyncratic voice, but the voice has lost resonance (in his worst moments he seems to have lost it to a Dictaphone machine). While terminal arthritic-fingers-on-the-typewriter lethargy has claimed many of his colleagues, Buckley's energy is still unflagging; but the intense concentration which could have made him a great writer, a conservative Mencken, seems beyond his will. (p. 59)

James Wolcott, "The CIA Wins (Again? At Last?) in Bill Buckley's Sexpionage," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1975), December 8, 1975, pp. 58-9.

Buckley's spy thriller [Saving the Queen] is set in the early '50s, when Stalin was in the Kremlin, Joe McCarthy was "going after the fags" in the State Department and all was right with the cold war. Blackford Oakes, Yale '51, is pipelined by the old-boy network straight into the CIA. His assignment proves crucial to the survival of the West. Someone close to England's Queen Caroline is leaking American H-bomb secrets to the reds. With nary a false step, Oakes foils this villainous plot and gets as close to the Queen as is possible for a robust young conservative.

Buckley, Yale '50, is clearly half kidding. But the half that is not causes some problems. No discernible irony or worry leaven his political message—free world ends justify the means—or his fulsome adulation of the "beautiful" Oakes, "the man-boy American, loose, bright, shining with desire and desirability." At times like these, not even Buckley's wittiest sesquipedalian sonorities can allay the impression that he is writing with his foot in his cheek. (p. 66)

Paul Gray, in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), January 5, 1976.

The one unbreakable rule is that the spy novel must entertain. When it becomes a propaganda vehicle or the boring formula of a lesser talent, it is doomed to [caricature]. (p. 15)

It will surprise absolutely no one to learn that in Saving the Queen,… [Buckley] has seized the chance to grind his renowned conservative axe. This is his basic mistake, although he plots his tall tale quite creditably, and brings deus and machina to a comfortably improbable climax with panache. (pp. 14-15)

Buckley wants his light-hearted romp to do yeoman service as a hymn in praise of the CIA, and on this level it is as full of holes as a barrel of bagels. The Buckleyisms tucked slyly into the story are the sort, to borrow Fowler's old joke, up with which I will not put…. For it is hard to share Buckley's nostalgic admiration for a cocky teen-aged American who, briefly in an England already at war in 1941, flaunted his America First button and his hero-worship for Charles Lindbergh, "the great advocate of American peace." Out of acorns such as this mighty spooks don't grow. (p. 15)

Pearl K. Bell, in The New Leader (© 1976 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), January 19, 1976.

Since the [appearance of Saving the Queen], the author [William F. Buckley, Jr.] has repeatedly been asked whether the novel is autobiographical. His answers have sometimes appeared evasive, although he readily admits to having served briefly as a deep cover agent in the CIA after leaving college. Asked if, like his hero, he was treated sadistically at a British public school, he has answered that no, while at school in England as a boy he was beloved, then as now, of everyone. Asked to reply to the charge that everyone in his novel speaks like himself, he has remarked that this is a weakness he has in common with Jane Austen. Criticized in the New York Times for a scene that "reads like the Hardy Boys at a brothel," he replied that, speaking for himself, he would be delighted to read a chapter depicting the behavior of the Hardy Boys at a brothel. Asked why his hero, however amusing, departs so abruptly from the stereotype of Greene, Le Carré, et al., the author observed that not all American spies wear dirty underwear, or toss and turn at night wondering whether maybe Stalin wasn't right after all. Asked whether he has in mind a plot for a future novel, he was—once again—evasive, admitting only that he had mused on the theme of a novel based on a great novelist who consumed his talent worrying about mundane affairs. (p. 169)

William F. Buckley, Jr., in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1976; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), February 20, 1976.

[Saving the Queen] has all the trappings of a spy thriller and much more—so much more that Mr Buckley cannot seem to make up his mind exactly what kind of a book he wants to write: another CIA exposé, a satire on Henry James's sensitive American in tradition-barnacled Europe, a literary novel or an adventure fantasy—for the book is all of these by turns….

Mr Buckley's baroque prose sits heavily on his narrative, slowing it to snail's pace, and his repeated anecdotes about Churchill, Stalin, Eisenhower, etc—while fascinating as historical gossip—distract the reader and allow what tension there is to ebb away. (p. 318)

Tony Aspler, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1976; reprinted by permission of Tony Aspler), March 11, 1976.

[Saving the Queen is] an entertaining yarn, graced with a literate style, keen knowledge and a twinkling sense of humor. We follow [a young CIA] agent's painstaking training, travel with him to England, enjoy his detour to a brothel in Paris, learn the inside tracks of a secret operation and accompany him to the Royal Palace, where he establishes a personal relationship with the Queen.

The young American's attachment to the Queen of England is lively and scandalous, yet full of endearing moments. The author has found a mischievous, unique way of illustrating Royalty in most human terms….

Saving the Queen, inching its way to the top of the Best Seller list, has injected a touch of sophistication and a flavor of sly irony to the genre of political intrigue. Authors like John Le Carre and Len Deighton dwell on the bleak, pessimistic and treacherous life of the secret agent. Buckley manages to convey a sense of reality by interweaving real-life personalities and events with imaginary ones and keeps the proceedings whirling with fresh humor, wit and bite. (p. 219)

Amnon Kabatchnik, in Armchair Detective (copyright © 1976 by Allen J. Hubin), June, 1976.