Buckley's gently mournful memoir recounts the year in which his parents died. He is the writer of a number of political satires which poke fun at the world of Washington DC, and was for a long time a columnist for the right wing National Review, a magazine founded by his father. However, last year he declared that he would vote for Obama, and quickly had to resign from NR. He has also been a speechwriter for a number of prominent Republican politicians, including George H.W. Bush and John McCain, and his father being William F. Buckley, he spent much of his life surrounded by major figures in the Republican Party. He shows great loyalty to his parents, yet he makes his differences with his father clear, especially about religious faith. His father was a convinced Roman Catholic, while Christopher is an agnostic. Christopher also makes clear that both his parents were in many ways very difficult people, so that one marvels at his ability to take such a generous view of them.
Buckley's mother died first, so her decline in health and demise start the book. However, it is his relationship with his famous father that is really the heart of the story. He shows their relationship as loving, even though sometimes he had to remove himself from his parents' presence in order to keep his sanity, and occasionally after difficult experiences with them, he would write letters to them explaining to them why their behavior had been atrocious. One gets the impression that Buckley is an enormously civilized and thoughtful man, and he often he has a wonderfully ironic and irreverent turn of phrase. When he gets the bill for the cremation of his mother, it is $6,007. He muses, "Jeez Louise, we are looking for a little cremation, not a full blown Viking funeral. Where is Jessica Mitford when you need her?"
Those who follow the Republican Party, used to watch William F. Buckley's career or read some of his over 50 books will be interested to learn about his relationship with his son. Even those who have little interest in politics will find this memoir enjoyable, even with its sad theme, because Buckley shows how interesting and extraordinary his parents were. They lived life to the full, and come across as fascinating people. It is especially interesting to see how William F. Buckley, Jr, one of the great promoters of modern conservativism, embodied various contradictions in his warm friendships with a variety of people and his family life, and how so many liberals mourned his death. But at its heart, this is a book about a son becoming an orphan in his mid-fifties, and doing so with grace and equanimity, while still honoring his parents.
The unabridged audiobook is read superbly by Buckley himself -- I've never heard an author give such a strong performance of their own work. Given the highly personal nature of the book, it is appropriate that the author reads it himself for the audiobook, but it is a great surprise to find that Buckley is so accomplished a reader, when most authors are dismal readers of their own work.
© 2009 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.