- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 11, 2005


By William F. Buckley Jr.

Harcourt, $25.00 cloth, 353 pages


In one of the most striking claims ever put forth by a major 20th century literary figure, novelist E. M. Forster once declared that if he were ever forced to make the choice between betraying his country and betraying a friend, he hoped he would have the guts to betray his country.

For most of us the decisions of everyday life are enough, and the momentous choice articulated by Forster never comes about. But for a few individuals it does. Among that small number of men and women, what are we to make of those who betray both their country and their friends? The poet Dante reserved the lowest circles of Hell for such traitors. The fictional Cold War era spy created by William F. Buckley Jr., Blackford Oakes, faces off against just such an antagonist in what may be his final appearance in print.

In his long career with the CIA, Oakes has saved the queen of England, tangled with Che Guevara, thwarted an attempt upon the life of Mikhail Gorbachev and more. He appears in a series of novels that mingle historical fact — some of it little known — with imaginative re-creations of what might have been. He is every inch a loyal American operative — but what happens to such a man when his enemy changes shape and the end of the Cold War looms indistinctly upon the road ahead?

In “Last Call for Blackford Oakes,” we see Oakes as the lion in winter. It is late 1987, the Cold War is winding down, and he is ageing, weary, retired from service with the Agency, and sorrowing over the death of his wife. From his home in fictional Merriwell, Va., he is called out of retirement by President Ronald Reagan and sent to Moscow to do what he can to quash another conspiracy bent upon killing Mr. Gorbachev.

Oakes complies, traveling to the Soviet capital under the name Harry Doubleday, a publisher with ties to the U.S. Information Agency. The assassination conspiracy dissipates without Oakes’ intervention, but the mission to Moscow is not a total waste of time, for there he meets and falls deeply in love with a kindred soul: brilliant, funny, feisty Ursina Chadinov. She asks Oakes to accompany her to the wedding of her longtime roommate, Rufina Pukhov, who is engaged to one Andrei Fyodorovich Martins.

At the wedding reception, to his shock and rage, Oakes recognizes Martins as the British traitor Kim Philby, a former chief at MI6 and the most notorious of the “Cambridge Spies,” well-heeled English turncoats whose treachery intensified the Cold War and resulted in death to many Western agents, including Philby’s own longtime associates. With difficulty Oakes maintains his composure and leaves the wedding reception with Ursina.

Within a few weeks Ursina is pregnant with Oakes’ child, and Oakes — ecstatic at this news — returns to the States to make final arrangements for Ursina to join him in a new life on these shores as husband and wife. But while he is away, terrible things occur. Spurred by insights sparked during conversation with visiting novelist Graham Greene, Philby decides to learn what he can about “Harry Doubleday.” Upon opening and reading a letter sent to Rufina, he discovers that the American is in fact his hated nemesis, Blackford Oakes, and that the unborn child carried by Ursina is “Doubleday’s.”

Philby plots to destroy Oakes and his seed, and when Ursina begins suffering from an ectopic pregnancy, the way is opened for Philby to arrange one of the “accidental” deaths for which the Soviets were famous. From this point on, the conflict between Oakes and Philby becomes bitterly personal, especially after Philby sends the American a pair of taunting letters. Oakes is wracked by despair, and then comes to a point of cool resolve, knowing what he must do.

A remarkable lapse in judgment has brought him to this climactic point in his life: a failure to remember that the Bad Guys actually open people’s mail and seek to harm not only their enemies but the loved ones of their enemies, as well. In time, at the behest of the U. S. government, Oakes travels to Vienna to participate in diplomatic negotiations regarding the fate of a Soviet defector. He also goes to pursue his own deadly endgame with one of the Soviet negotiators, Kim Philby.

There is a feel to this novel of winding down and tying up loose ends in the story of Blackford Oakes. From the beginning of the novel there is a sense that his day in the sun is over, and that all that remain in his life are the fleeting promise of unsought new love and memories of heroic resistance to totalitarianism: of having done his small part to help save the world from global nuclear conflict.

From the beginning Oakes faces the promise of what T. S. Eliot called “a time for the evening under lamplight / (The evening with the photograph album)” — but in the end this is denied him. There is a sense that Oakes has accomplished much in his life, but that there are no final victories, just as there are no final defeats while life remains. Thus, in “Last Call for Blackford Oakes,” Mr. Buckley to some extent mirrors the tone of his recent autobiographical work, “Miles to Go.”

“Last Call for Blackford Oakes” brings to a conclusion the story of an eloquent, intelligent and good man who has spent his life battling not only a murderous ideology but its sleek, well-spoken apologists in the West. For what is one to make of Graham Greene, Carlos Fuentes and other Western literary men and women — sketched realistically in Mr. Buckley’s novel — who paid court to the Kremlin during communism’s reign?

V. I. Lenin had a pithy term for such people: “useful idiots.” More generously and honestly, Mr. Buckley assesses them as brilliant individuals with good intentions who wrongly believed that they were on the “winning side” of history and were thus willing to excuse or overlook every act of communist brutality during “scientific socialism’s” long, messy march toward a better tomorrow. As journalist Simon Carr wrote a few years ago in the London Spectator, “Those who believe in a perfect society excuse the crimes of those who pursue it.”

Mr. Buckley unspools a story that begins slowly and a bit creakily, gathers steam during the middle chapters, and then hurtles toward an abrupt, stunning conclusion. The settings have the feel of well-traveled authenticity about them, the dialogue is realistic and clever, and the author leaves the door open for an improbable follow-up volume with an intriguing question: Are Oakes’s loyal housekeeper Josefina and the Soviet snitch “Josey” — who plays a crucial role in revealing the true identity of “Harry Doubleday” at one key point in the story — one and the same person?

“Last Call for Blackford Oakes” is a masterly spy novel, depicting a time of imminent, deadly danger that may seem an incredible fantasy to future generations, a time when people in the West were able to sleep peaceably in their beds at night because unseen men stood ready to do violence on their behalf.

James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind” and the biography “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow” (Cumberland House).

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