I wonder, when a humorist writes a book not intended for laughs. When, say, the very funny satirist, Christopher Buckley, writes a memoir – say, Losing Mum and Pup – about the deaths of his legendary parents in 2007 and 2008?
I once heard a poet say that a poet who writes prose is backing herself into a corner. I took this to mean that in the structure and expectations of prose – its demands for clarity, explication, logic, resolution – there is nowhere for the writer to hide the way she can in the indirection and convoluted alleyways of poetry. Is the same true, I wonder, when a humorist writes a book not intended for laughs? When, say, the very funny satirist, Christopher Buckley, writes a memoir – say, Losing Mum and Pup – about the deaths of his legendary parents in 2007 and 2008?
The easy answer is that Buckley – even when writing about these events – is an irrepressibly graceful, witty, and entertaining writer. He’s a sort of Fred Astaire on the computer keyboard, with a strong dose of vinegar and of self-mocking good humor that must come from having grown up with parents as self-involved as his were. He maintains his equilibrium – between crying jags – in part because their deaths are in the natural order of things. The passing of one’s elderly parents is not the high ground of tragedy but only sad – and in this case, sad with many layers of ambivalence.
The author’s father was William F. Buckley Jr., conservative eminence. Mum was Pat Buckley, New York socialite extraordinaire, friend of everyone from the Reagans and Kissingers to Truman Capote. They lived mostly in Stamford, Connecticut, but kept an apartment on East 73rd Street (not large enough for Mum’s 500-person memorial service), and spent winters in Gstaadt, Switzerland, hanging out with the Galbraiths, David Niven, and the Nabokovs. Was there anyone they didn’t know?
Even their son is impressed: “I hereby promise that this will be the only time I deploy this particular cliché – larger than life people. A gross understatement in their case. I wonder, having typed that: Is it name-dropping when they’re your own parents?”
Last summer I read my first Buckley novel, Supreme Courtship, about a Judge Judy-type lawyer who’s nominated for the Supreme Court, uncannily presaging the unveiling of Sarah Palin weeks later. As I read, I idly wondered what Buckley was like when he wasn’t being funny or political, when he wasn’t performing.
It’s a minor hobby of mine, considering comedians when they’re not on stage, trying to divine what sorts of vulnerabilities fuel their comedy. Even before seeing The Aristocrats, I’d have said that stand-up comics have traditionally come from the lower and working classes, from outsider stock, from people angry at their circumstances (tragedy + time = comedy). Vanderbilts and Rockefellers don’t do stand-up.
George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld needn’t sublimate their Oedipal rage or prove their worth by cracking jokes about schmendrik fathers and overbearing mothers. They can invade countries and force their subjects to maim and kill thousands of people. The power to make people laugh is what’s left over for the rest of us who don’t control armies and vast personal fortunes.
My hobby isn’t entirely academic. My grandparents were Eastern European Jews, my father an alcoholic and the black sheep of his family; the best defenses against this sort of upbringing are sarcasm and irony. We started out middle class. For a few years we were upper middle class, then we became very poor, but lived in a high rise on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. This juxtaposition is also full of comic potential. Before they lost their little bit of money, my parents threw big parties and had an optimistic outlook on how things would turn out. When they died, not long before Buckley’s parents, they were long divorced and dirt poor. This part is not funny.
My father was a liberal democrat who often watched Buckley’s show Firing Line, probably so he’d have someone to be mad at who couldn’t yell back at him, and to keep up on the issues of the day. My father mocked Buckley for his aristocratic ways and his myriad pomposities; everyone did. He was a comic figure in his affectations and not so comic in the extremes of his conservatism and of his influence.
I say all of this to put this reading of Losing Mum and Pup in context. And also to explain why I hadn’t read any of Buckley’s other novels until last summer, when his publisher sent me Supreme Courtship. Like my father, I don’t live anywhere near the galaxy that the Buckleys inhabit. I always laughed at Christopher Buckley’s satires in the New Yorker and his reviews elsewhere, but I just couldn’t bring myself to spend book-time with a former speech writer for George H.W. Bush.
For a smart, sassy romp, Supreme Courtship won me over, and so, weeks later, did Buckley’s endorsing Obama for president. In those desperate hours, when W. was beginning to look like a Rhodes Scholar next to Sarah Palin, Buckley pulled through and became, if only fleetingly, one of us.
It was in this mood of bonhomie that I opened Losing Mum and Pup – and read it in two rapt sittings. Even with all the Buckley mishigash, it was so much jollier than any memoir I could have written about my parents’ deaths – or their lives. I realized that in only one respect, I had it easier than Buckley did: I have a sister with whom I shared the burdens and sorrows of our parents’ deaths. Instead of a sibling, Buckley had his parents’ household staff of five – and the world at large. He got 800 condolence letters when Pup died, and a phone call from the President.
The rich have always been different from you and me, except now, post-crash, post-Madoff, they have less money and some have none at all. But one of the guilty pleasures of Losing Mum and Pup is seeing the curtain pulled back on this stratum of the wealthy and the social. Said a socialite in Vanity Fair earlier this year: “Pat Buckley was Queen of New York when Reagan was president…. The best invitation in town was to go to the Buckleys’. It was the best fun: it was journalists, it was celebrities, it was Tom Wolfe, it was fabulous. Who gives parties like that today?”
The rich are often written about, but not usually by their own members and rarely, when the author is an insider, is he or she as funny, biting, or as good a writer as Buckley. His prose goes down like gelato: delicious, pleasurable, not overly nourishing, but you know you’ve tasted something that’s superlative in its category.
Life chez Buckley was highly theatrical when it wasn’t entirely ghastly. His parents didn’t speak to each other for, he estimates, a third of the time. At his college graduation, his parents left early, without him, assuming he had plans with his friends for later. (He didn’t.) “Mum’s serial misbehavior over the years,” he writes, “had driven me, despairing, to write her scolding – occasionally scalding – letters.” One such episode occurred when he wasn’t present, but his teenage daughter and her best friend Kate – Robert Kennedy’s granddaughter – were. Over dinner, Mum invented a story that she had been a juror in the murder trial of Kate’s cousin, Michael Skakel, and “launched into a protracted lecture” on his villainy to Kate. When the two frazzled girls called the younger Buckley to unload, “All I could say to poor Kate was a stuttery WASP variation on Oy vey.”
To us he says, “The good news was that I wasn’t speaking to Mum at the time, so it seemed pointless to haul out the ink-well, sharpen the quill, and let fly with another well-crafted verbal bitch slapping.”
Like all families where the booze flows freely, it was a household where boundaries were not much in evidence, where respecting people’s feelings was a hit or miss affair. Buckley never says so directly, but Mum’s behavior seems equal parts narcissistic personality disorder and alcoholism of the high-functioning variety. Pup was merely ambitious, stubborn, controlling, hugely self-involved, and fetishistic about only spending “eight or nine bucks” per bottle of wine. (This may have made good sense, given how many were consumed.)
But reading about young Buckley’s caring for Pup after Mum dies, about his dementia, his grief, his writing until the bitter end, dying at his desk – these frailties are heartbreaking to observe up close, whatever one’s politics or class. And the son’s own grief, shouldered alone, without siblings, is as real as yours and mine.
This review should end right about here, with a witty, Buckleyesque wrap up, but there is a curious postscript which has colored my experience of the book. In the course of writing this, I googled Buckley for some biographical details and landed on a 2008 story from the Washington Post that I thought at first was a mistake or a satire – it was so tawdry. It led to more tales of The Not So Discreet Charm of the Haute Goyim.
Ten years ago, while married, young Buckley fathered a son with a book publicist. He has never seen him and refuses to see him, though he contributes to his support. William F. excluded the boy from a share of his $30 million estate. In the last year, the child’s mother has sought more child support. Though Buckley’s wife Lucy is often mentioned and thanked in Losing Mum and Pup, for the last several years he has had a girlfriend 25 years his junior with whom he is often photographed at posh New York parties.
Should a reviewer say anything or let this lie? If Buckley’s book were a novel instead of a memoir about filial love and parental (ir)responsibility, I would give the outside story a pass. But given the subject, I’d argue that the rest of his life – alas, on display all over the Internet – is fair game. (The fairness of that is another story for another time.)
Losing Mum and Pup is a quick, ultimately tenderhearted look back, not a deep look inside. The many references to Lucy – they’re often in touch by cell as he travels to see his parents – suggest an intact family, though I wondered why she never accompanied him. I don’t fault Buckley for not getting into all of this. But the omissions answer the question of what comic writers do with material that is so deeply not funny, so truly unflattering. Material that would back them into a corner with little room to move – to charm or entertain. Another kind of writer might plumb the depths and see what he comes up with. Mr. Buckley prefers the ultimate safety of silence, at least for now.
We may just have to wait until one or more of his three children tell the story of what kind of father he was.
original art by Miranda Harter