In “Miles Gone By,” his literary autobiography, William F. Buckley Jr. described his son Christopher, proudly, as a man of “singular warmth and grace” and “tough gentility,” qualities much in evidence in this intense, beautifully written and often achingly personal account of his relationship with his parents, who died within a year of each other.
“They were not — with respect to every other set of loving, wonderful parents in the world — your typical mom and dad.” At times, he sees warts where we’d prefer not to look, in a way that perhaps only the talented only child of extraordinary parents, hungering for their attention and approval, can see them. But he’s also a man of letters, a writer, and no matter how immediate and deep the emotional entanglements, he maintains a measure of perspective.
This toughness and perspective enable him to assist his father during his last days in ways that transcend the dutiful. Back from the hospital, wracked by emphysema and threatened with renal failure, Bill Buckley, in a wrenching and memorable scene, sets out for his study in a summer gale — “he could barely breathe, barely stand, barely speak,” Christopher Buckley recalls — to work on his next-to-last book, a memoir of former Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater.
“He fired up his computers. He hunched unsteadily over his keyboard. I hovered behind, ready to catch him if he pitched forward. ‘I’m going to have to dictate to you,’ he said. … So he stood, holding onto the edge of the desk for support, and began to dictate the last chapter of his memoirs about Barry Goldwater.
“What amazed me, and still does now, was how fluent it was. Rereading the final chapter in the recently published book, it’s remarkable how little changed it is from what issued from Pup’s oxygen-deprived blue lips that rainy morning in his study. His mind was a still brightly burning fire deep within the wreckage of his body. He made hardly any self-corrections as he spoke. … In less than 10 minutes, we were on the last paragraph of the last book he would complete. … My eyes misted up as I typed. I said, ‘It’s beautiful, Pup.’” He concludes, “I was, for the 1,000th time in my life, in awe of him.”
For good reason, as we all know: “Between 1962 and 2008, he wrote some 5,600 [columns]. Assembled into book form, they would fill 45 volumes; add to that his more than 50 published books. This is, I reflect, as a 55-year-old author of only 14 books, a humbling tally.” (He might have added to that tally the intelligence, convictions and presence that gave voice and coherence to a publication, National Review, and then to a movement that touched nearly every aspect of American life and led to the election of three presidents. But that’s another story.)
Toward the end, with doctors prescribing a variety of pills, the senior Mr. Buckley was increasingly “self-medicated.” “Pup’s self-medicating was … a chemical extension of the control he extended over every other aspect of his life … Put it this way: Few great men — and I use the term precisely, for Pup was a great man — do not seek to assert total control over their domains. … Great men (and yes, of course by that I include women) tend to be the stars of their own movies.”
They do indeed, and that included Christopher Buckley’s mother, very much the producer, director, writer and star of her own film. After finding fault in a filial way, he tells us: “Mum had a regal way about her that did not brook contradiction. … She was beautiful, theatrical, bright as a diamond, the wittiest woman I have ever known. (Whatever talent I possess as a ‘humorist’ — dreadful word — I owe to her.) She could have done anything; instead, she devoted herself, heart, soul and body, to being Mrs. William F. Buckley Jr. (A full-time job.)”
When the curtain fell, both father and son missed her desperately. In the end, the author concludes, “I guess one way or the other, it boils down to be able to look the Reaper in the eye with a smile and say, ‘Oh, puh-leeze.’ I bet that was how Mum did it, adding, ‘And what, pray, is that absurd costume supposed to indicate?’”
Finally, just beneath the toughness and the wit, there’s our author, saying of his parents: “Even in my dreams, they’re looking after me.” A splendid novelist, a veteran of the best schools and the Merchant Marine; cutting his own path and succeeding on his own terms; but underneath it all, a dutiful son who has honored his parents on his own terms and to the best of his considerable abilities in this memoir.
One suspects that somewhere, beyond all this, Bill and Pat Buckley are very proud of their son.