OUTSIDE LOOKING IN: ADVENTURES OF AN OBSERVER
By Garry Wills
Viking, $25.95, 208 pages
Well, you're standing on the stage listening to Beverly Sills' mother coach the great soprano in Russian dialect, and somehow you wind up at a birthday party for her - the mother, that is - and eventually you get to know Beverly very well, to the point of lunching with and receiving correspondence from her, as well as various confidences, and so it goes, apparently, if you're Garry Wills.
And so this entirely fascinating and readable book goes: a production of no particular heft but full of good stories about and insights into the varied folk, high and low, who have crossed Mr. Wills' radar screen during his half-century and more as a journalist, classicist and college professor.
There's Hillary Rodham Clinton (whom he likes and appreciates as a mimic). There's Bill Buckley (with whom he shared genuine friendship, despite a long relational rupture). There's Jimmy Carter (a good man but kind of a bore). There's Alger Hiss (who courteously submitted to questioning in a Wills class on the Cold War).
Martha Stewart chats him up about the classics. Oliver Stone unspools for him his dream of making a movie about Alexander the Great. He goes to jail in company with Dr. Spock and Judy Collins for demonstrating against the Vietnam War. A cellmate was Karl Hess, who wrote speeches for Barry Goldwater, whom Hess, an anarchist by that time, lauded as a truly great guy.
A hardworking writer for Esquire, National Review and the like gets around, but Mr. Wills gets around more than most and perhaps works harder than most - finding ample time along the way to write books about the Gettysburg Address, the Declaration of Independence and St. Paul. He characterizes himself as "a conventional bookworm," "so colorless, I am not interesting in myself, but I have been able to meet many interesting people and observe fascinating events, partly by being unobtrusive."
Few, including, I suspect, himself, would call Mr. Wills a stylish writer. He shoves words together like frozen peas on the plate, one bite tasting about like the others - a function, possibly, proceeding from a lifetime of thinking in Latin and Greek. His pages, in my long experience of reading him, not always as a fan, never light up. The other side of the matter is that in a Wills book, the reader rarely finds the author waving his arms, showing off, mugging for the camera, like H.L. Mencken or Hunter Thompson.
Colorlessness can come in handy. It certainly does here, as the party host - Mr. Wills - walks the reader from guest to guest, saying a few words, telling a few interesting stories, many of which, I judge, will make their way into future biographies.
Works for me, is all I can say, partly because the people are interesting, partly because no guest at the Wills party is allowed to become tedious, not even Richard Nixon, the subject of a widely read, highly critical examination Mr. Wills conducted in the 1970s, "Nixon Agonistes."
I liked best, I think, the chapter on Buckley, whom Mr. Wills knew very well indeed, as writer, friend, encourager and even sailing companion. He picks up ably on Buckley's "relish only for solo performances - sailing, skiing, horseback riding, or flying an airplane." He was impulsive, "like one of Wodehouse's blithe young men."
Snobbish? Nope. Buckley's frequent employment of $100 words "was a part of his playfulness." Conservatism and Catholicism (Mr. Will is a lifelong practicing Catholic) counted for more with William F. Buckley than did riches. He was always doing generous things for friends and family "and treated all ranks at [National Review] with equal dignity." The Wills-Buckley friendship came apart over political and cultural differences but was repaired in due course.
One more thing to like in this book: Mr. Wills' description of his addiction to reading. He confesses to having read under the covers with a flashlight when young rather than submit to bedtime regimen. It is the sort of commitment worth flaunting in front of modern people - of any age - who think computers rule the world. Mr. Wills confesses he has no traffic "with Palm Pilot, BlackBerry, iPhone, personal blog, texting, Twittering, Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, or other modern tools." Good for him. Neither did Cicero, Virgil, Euripides, Plato or Aristotle - the ancients he portrays and exalts as the fountains of all the modern disciplines.
I believe I've never liked Mr. Wills as much, in 40-plus years of reading him, as when I found him on Page 3 spending on a new book the $5 that was his father's reward to him "for going a whole week without reading anything." A man who thinks and acts in that enlightened manner can be forgiven political and cultural digressions repellent or just distasteful to others. I do believe in some highly commonplace respects this is the very best Garry Wills book I have ever read.
William Murchison is a syndicated columnist.
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