William F. Buckley, Jr. Buckley, William F(rank), Jr. (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Buckley, William F(rank), Jr. 1925–

Buckley, an American editor, political writer, novelist, and lecturer, is best known as conservativism's most eloquent spokesperson. He is the author of three witty espionage novels. (See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Jane Larkin Crain

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Stained Glass,] an elegant and engaging tale of East-West skulduggery in postwar Germany, genially observes all the conventions of the first-rate spy story and at the same time conducts a disturbing lesson in the unsavory realities of international politics.

Given to outlandish fantasies …, the author here advances a startling proposition: What if the Western Powers, the United States in particular, had resisted Soviet tyranny in East Germany during the scramble for influence in Europe that followed the Second World War? Now, of course, we will never know, but as the author re-creates the international climate of the early 1950s, the notion that history once in a great while presents an opportunity for right to prevail seems tantalizingly plausible, and the bungling of such a chance, maddeningly and momentously wasteful.

Stained Glass proceeds with the ample wit and intelligence that one by now takes for granted in Buckley. With a plot that finds the CIA collaborating with the KGB to assassinate the most prominent and influential anti-Communist in Europe, the novel—by turns playful, charming, poignant, wickedly satiric, and unabashedly partisan—stops short of the triumphantly unambiguous finale featured in routine thrillers. But then, if the author denies us the allegorical victory of the good guys over the bad, it is no doubt because his resonant idealism is tempered by an unblinking eye for things as they really are.

Jane Larkin Crain, "Books in Brief: 'Stained Glass'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1978 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 5, No. 16, May 13, 1978, p. 39.

Newgate Callendar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Americanism, Catholicism, the Red Menace, the idiocy of the liberals—that is what "Stained Glass" is all about. It is a tract, in black and white, full of post hoc conclusions. One thing, though. The breezy, uninhibited mind of the author always comes through.

Only Mr. Buckley could gleefully get in passing cracks about Adlai Stevenson, Alger Hiss, Charlie Chaplin, The New York Times editorial page. Only Mr. Buckley could pause to talk about "Parsifal" and Bach. Only Mr. Buckley could interrupt the action to quote from the Complete Works of Whittaker Chambers. Only Mr. Buckley could so have duplicated President Truman's salty language….

How about "Stained Glass" as a story? Well, it's fun. Mr. Buckley can write. There is plenty of action, some wit at the expense of thinkers the author does not particularly admire, some high-level shenanigans out of the White House and the Kremlin, and plenty of standard cut and thrust as the American and Communist agents clash swords. (p. 13)

Newgate Callendar, "Oakes to the Rescue," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 14, 1978, pp. 12-13, 26.

Ronald Berman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stained Glass is more of a novel than a thriller, and it differs from the idols of its marketplace in some interesting ways. The first is in its sense of character. The second is in the correlative of its title. The third and most important difference is political. Stained Glass is squarely centered on a political issue, not a fantasy. It is worth reading and remembering because it is informed by strategy, and consists, as a novel, in the working out of a political possibility….

The subject is the unification of East and West Germany at a time when this might still have been attempted. The book has a short timetable; all of the action is dependent on the defeat of Konrad Adenauer by [Wintergrin,] a man prepared to take many more chances than der Alte—a man whom the United States has an acknowledged interest in removing before he becomes too serious an affront to the Soviet Union. The agon of the book doesn't concern the morality of his assassination, only its political wisdom. This is less cynical and more important than it sounds: we are assuming that Intelligence is not moral, and that this allows it to be accurate.

The great moments in Stained Glass occur in debate, as it becomes clear that the CIA has only political theory to offer against morality, and that such theory is incomplete without moral (and historical) knowledge….

The logic of the book's central event is held up against the mind and spirit of both Oakes [of the CIA] and Wintergrin—and against the metaphor of the title. Oakes...

(The entire section is 658 words.)

Robin W. Winks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Detective fiction has come so far as] to embrace political philosophy in the person of William F. Buckley Jr., that essayist, columnist, hymnodist of all things conservative, in his second thriller, Stained Glass. The first, Saving the Queen, was replete with ambiguity, irony, suspense—all those qualities we associate with Ambler, Greene, le Carre and company—and yet it put forward by example an argument about loyalty and guilt which was, to this reviewer, thoroughly convincing. Now Buckley advances his argument a further step, and onto more dangerous ground…. [In Stained Glass all] is ambiguity, all contributes to forwarding Buckley's analysis of a time when a truly bold West might have broken through the stranglehold Stalin had laid upon the Cold War, yet all is realistic in its conclusion that ultimately one must take action rather than wait for all of the facts, the options, the moral judgments to be in: "I don't believe the lesson to draw is that we must not act because, in acting, we may prove to be wrong." This is Dulles …, and while the action belongs to Oakes, the book belongs to Dulles.

Buckley has remarked that he would have liked to have called this chilling, compelling book "Detente." The title would have been apt, for while Stained Glass is about the past, its attitudes are for today. If history is philosophy teaching by example, this novel is a work of history, for it parallels those options that might well have been open to the West in the long ago years when, had boldness been our friend the world might today be vastly different—and when another form of boldness helped determine our present condition. One suspects Buckley intends to carry us, through the eyes of Oakes, from the seemingly clear perceptions of right and wrong of the Cold War years to our own muddy days, unraveling his ever more complex political views as he goes. At least I hope so, for Stained Glass is closer to the bone than le Carre has ever cut. (pp. 26-7)

Robin W. Winks, "Robin W. Winks on Mysteries: 'Stained Glass'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 178, No. 23, June 10, 1978, pp. 26-7.

Melvyn Bragg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Stained Glass] we have what can unblushingly be called a rattling good yarn, a firmly built and racy thriller, a perfect read for a wet English summer.

More than that, though. Buckley doesn't shirk the job of taking his fiction where his history leads him. We get a clear picture of the politics of that republican gadfly, his attitudes to the Cold War, to communism, to NATO etc. Interesting stuff and well, not to say expensively, served in a high class fict-o-mix.

Melvyn Bragg, "West and East," in Punch (© 1978 by Punch Publications Ltd.; all rights reserved; may not be reprinted without permission), Vol. 275, July 12, 1978, p. 70.∗


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If one word can be used to describe William Buckley's new suspense novel [Stained Glass] it is "absorbing" rather than "exciting" but since the book's discriminating readership is almost pre-selected by the erudite fame of the author this can be only high recommendation.

The public has become conditioned, perhaps unfortunately, to a manner of speed writing in spy stories, which helps impel the action, so although the question should be asked: Can a spy story be too well written? its answer, in this case, becomes redundant. This is pure, high grade, artful, beautifully orotund Buckley.

One is never quite so lost in this story of a man chosen by the CIA to eliminate a West German leader rising to power to forget who wrote it, not so entwined in the dastardly plot to lose sight of the elegant sentence structure. In short, if you are a run-of-the-mill-subway or lunch-counter reader you may have to tote an unabridged dictionary under your arm to look up bits of arcanum such as: zeugma, tergiversation or prandial.

However, this simply adds to the book's entertainment value, which is abundant. It is also a good yarn even though it ravels resolutely on to the inevitable ending.

Guernsey Le Pelley, "Rough Wading from Buckley," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1978 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), August 16, 1978, p. 19.

Anatole Broyard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William F. Buckley Jr. is almost alone in using genuine political mischief as a source of wit in the spy novel. He raises the sort of questions that only the most naïve and the most sophisticated political observers would dare to ask. He says, "What if—" and then proposes something that is as attractive as it is preposterous, something so nearly commonsensical that it throws the entire Western world into pandemonium.

He did this in "Stained Glass," his last spy novel, and now he is at it again in "Who's on First." It is 1956, and the earthshaking question is who will launch the first satellite, the United States or the Soviet Union? At stake is "the myth of bourgeois scientific invincibility." (pp. 123-24)

Mr. Buckley learned all about writing spy novels with his second attempt. He understood, for example, that readers of the genre love the technical, which is the objective correlative of a superior type of anxiety. In "Stained Glass," the problem was how to achieve the blue that corresponded to the medieval vision of heaven. In "Who's on First," Mr. Buckley addresses himself to keeping up the strength of transistor crystals. The transistor is the brain, the liver and the prostate of contemporary electronics.

Once again, the security of the free world is weighed against the life of an extraordinary individual, and Blackford Oakes weighs the casuistry of the Central Intelligence Agency against his natural elitism. (p. 124)

Blackford Oakes brings an unusual dignity and gallantry to patriotic fornication. He gives himself "totally," his imagination "writhes," and he "suffocates." In every respect, he is a welcome relief from the unromantic superiority and disengagement of a James Bond. Beneath this cold war, there beats a warm heart….

If anyone can make lively reading out of political or moral soul-searching, Mr. Buckley can. The difficulty with wits is that they are afraid of sentimentality. But what are politics, patriotism, spying, war, cold or hot, if they are not sentimental? (p. 125)

Anatole Broyard, "'Who's On First'," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 6, 1980 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. 3, No. 4, 1980, pp. 123-25).

Newgate Callendar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Who's on First," the] third of William F. Buckley Jr.'s espionage novels featuring Blackford Oakes, is set, like the two previous books, in the recent past, the period just before Sputnik. That gives the author the advantage of second sight. It also gives him a chance to indulge in some imaginary dialogue between famous figures….

As in all good espionage novels, there is thrust and counter-thrust. The Americans come up with an ingenious kidnap idea. The Russians, at first taken in, counter with a thrust of their own. So it goes. Toward the end there is a confrontation on the high seas…. (p. 7)

"Who's on First" has its share of barbed comment, mostly in the political area. Mr. Buckley is primarily a man of politics, an observer with a keen wit and a cold eye. Elsewhere, the writing is less convincing. Blackie—that's what he lets his friends call him—remains too much the Boy Scout type, sexual escapades and all. Mr. Buckley's writing at times can be infuriatingly stilted and artificial. There is also too much of himself in Blackie; he is living out his fantasy life in his hero. With all that, "Who's on First" does have a pungent plot, and it moves along smartly. Most of the fun in the book, however, is the asides: the tiny vignettes of those in power, the deflation of incompetence, the personal beliefs and politics of one William F. Buckley Jr. Those manage to make the book something more than a routine exercise in cold-war espionage. (p. 26)

Newgate Callendar, "As Acheson Said to Dulles," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 17, 1980, pp. 7, 26.

Jack Chatfield

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I now understand enough about reviewing spy novels not to reveal the plot of this elegant and witty book set on the eve of the Sputnik launch. But it is safe to say that Who's on First skillfully combines a drama of high politics with one of high technology. We learn something about ozone fuels and transistors. We visit the Gulag and the chambers of the Washington elite. We meet a semi-alcoholic Navy captain who reads Forever Amber, and a boisterous and obscene rocket scientist straight from the Texas earth. We are privy to hilarious moments at Eisenhower Cabinet sessions, and contemplative moments with Dean Acheson and Allen Dulles. The Acheson-Dulles talks are rich and artful, and at the center of Mr. Buckley's imaginative and philosophical strategies. At the end, Sputnik is aloft, as we knew it would be, knew it had to be. Doomed to motion. Joined now to the exuberant harmony of the spheres. (p. 423)

Jack Chatfield, "Swell Letters: Exuberant Harmony," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1980; 150 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016), Vol. 32, No. 7, April 4, 1980, pp. 422-23.

Robert Lekachman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As an adventure novelist, William F. Buckley has done it again with Who's on First?. For journals of opinion, aristocratic politics tend to become a drag after a few decades. But they are just the thing in the boys' books Buckley has been writing. I like Blackford Oakes, his hero, partly because nobody I know has a name remotely reminiscent. I admired his exploits in Saving the Queen in which to preserve freedom and save NATO he was compelled, respectfully, to administer sexual solace to the Queen of England. I enjoyed Stained Glass even more because the reverberations of the ancien régime were even more enticing. Well, friends, Blackie is the same upper-class Yalie and loyal C.I.A. agent as ever, a sucker for noblesse oblige, a soul strained taut by the conflicting pulls of personal honor and raison d'état. All three of these fantasies of adolescent wish fulfillment belong in the great tradition of public school heroes. Wherever they are, Tom Brown and Stover of Yale must be lifting forbidden mugs of ale to Blackie. So do I…. (p. 506)

Robert Lekachman, "Good Boys, Bad Boys, Old Boys," in The Nation (copyright 1980 The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 230, No. 16, April 26, 1980, pp. 504-06.∗