Pico Iyer Journeys

Morning in America

Were an alien, in a happy state of ignorance, to drop out of the skies today and pick up a piece of the large, and daily increasing, oeuvre of William F. Buckley Jr., he would, I think, come to some interesting conclusions. Freed of preconceptions, knowing nothing of the face that has hosted Firing Line or the political convictions that lie behind the National Review, he might come up with a very different image from the one that sometimes confounds the rest of us. He would see, I suspect, an earnest, largely cloudless man, not anxious to tax himself too strenuously, and yet eager, in a rather old-fashioned way, to pass on what he knows of recent history to as many readers as possible, together with his sense of fun.

The man’s interests (the alien would soon notice) are rooted in the issues of the Cold War, and of the war that led up to it, even in the age of globalism and the Pacific Rim; France, Germany and Russia are his principal concerns abroad, and the people by whom he seems fascinated (James Jesus Angleton, say, the center of his novel Spytime) are hardly at the forefront of most people’s thoughts today. Where such contemporaries as Mailer and Vidal and Updike chafe and prod at the state of things, investing even the lightest of their books with their driving concerns and a sense of exploration, Buckley’s work is distinguished mostly by its sense of ease. He seems content, in fact, to present himself as little more than a host of sorts, guiding visitors around the stately home of history.

The alien might know nothing of the two long columns of previous works listed at the beginning of every new book (their titles Cruising Speed and Racing through Paradise and WindFall); he might be unaware of the 1429 episodes of what the author’s biography always calls “television’s longest-running program,” the 227 obituaries (of everyone from E.E. Cummings and John Dos Passos to Jerry Garcia and John Lennon), even of the 39 years of twice-weekly columns that take up 162 double-columned pages of his 310-page bibliography. What he would be struck by, in fact, would be not the sense of ambition, but rather its absence; the books he picked up randomly might baffle him in part through their seeming lack of interest in making, or scoring a point. Most writers are anxious to insist on how much lies behind their work and how much the books into which they’ve thrown themselves aim to change a reader’s life; with Buckley, the impression is very much the opposite. At the beginning of his collection of speeches, Let us Talk of Many Things, he tells us how little he puts into each oration and confesses that, during the 70 or more speeches he gives each year, he sometimes hardly knows whom he’s addressing or where he is; he seems to sit outside even himself (the author of See You Later Alligator) with a smile.

This happy insouciance raises the question, inevitably, of why this most easy-going of souls, as he seems to be, turns out books at such a furious rate. Of all authors, Buckley seems among the ones least in need of ready cash; and the celebrity the books have brought him (or, more likely, consolidated) is of the kind that has removed him from serious consideration in many quarters. He has been the writer that populists regard as an intellectual and intellectuals regard as a populist, tossing off books that few of his friends would read or respond to, even as he does not seem too bothered about closely reading their more exacting works.

The easy answer to all this would be to say that he is a professional amateur of the old school, still more often found in Britain than here, akin to those men who throw off gardening books in their free hours, or write detective stories when not running for public office; Buckley gives the impression of being eager to put every moment to use, though not being unduly concerned about what that use might be (not every writer, after all, would preserve for posterity his speech before the Girls Club of New York, his introductory remarks to the Sales Executives Club of New York or a “valentine” offered to the society columnist Suzy). Read through several of his books in one go and you come away with a grand, and infectious, sense of diversion and amusement; you also enter a universe that seems to have no place for pain.

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