- - Monday, May 11, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

BUCKLEY AND MAILER: THE DIFFICULT FRIENDSHIP THAT SHAPED THE SIXTIES

By Kevin M. Schultz

Norton, $28.95, 387 pages

This is how Kevin Schultz, a history professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, introduces his history of the ‘60s:

“It was late fall, and the old man awoke in a sour mood. As he rolled out of bed, he saw the cold November winds outside . Compounding the changing weather, he was also sick and dying.”

The sour “old man,” apparently capable of “seeing” the winds is Bill Buckley, heaving himself off his soon-to-be deathbed to write “Norman Mailer, RIP” that will appear in National Review. (Mailer died in November 2007, Buckley in February 2008.)

Mr. Schultz’s opening, straight out of Norman Mailer’s new journalism playbook, sets the stage for Bill Buckley to review his relationship with Mailer and the times they lived through.

The strength of this Maileresque approach, using fictional techniques to describe real situations, is that it provides immediacy, continuity and pace; the weakness is that the author enters the minds of his subjects and tells us what he finds there, although it may never have been there at all.

Thus, as Bill Buckley prepares to write, Mr. Schultz has him musing over what was and what might have been in the ‘60s, and what it was, precisely, that he and Mailer shared in their “common complaint about postwar America.”

Perhaps. But he might have been more concerned with how long it would take to write the “RIP,” and to what length (he was a meticulous editor.). He was proud of his ability to write his columns to length, with minimal edits, within 20 minutes (I’d watched him do it). And at this juncture that may have seemed most important.

And perhaps he wasn’t thinking about Mailer in those terms at all. Perhaps he was just remembering the drinks and laughs they’d shared, or the evening the Mailers came to dinner and Mrs. Mailer, one of those six wives, overcome by drink, slept the night through in the Buckley’s red room.

But give Mr. Schultz his due. He has set out to write a social history of the ‘60s, with Mailer and Buckley as ideological bookends. To that end, he has Buckley reflecting on their parallel lives — both born in the 1920s, both World War II veterans, both with best-selling first books: Mailer, “The Naked and the Dead,” 1948; and in 1952, Buckley’s “God and Man at Yale.” (Mr. Schultz misspells the name of Henry Regnery, Buckley’s first publisher and a revered conservative man of letters.)

Both founded important journals, The Village Voice and National Review. And in the late ‘60s, both ran for mayor of New York, Mailer in large part because Buckley had done it. (Bill Buckley would delight in New York’s new mayor, even denser than John Lindsay.)

Whether or not those parallels mean a great deal, there was a social friendship, perhaps not as close as Mr. Schultz would have it. And with their joint appearances, among them the 1962 Playboy debate in Chicago, it’s no stretch to conclude they were “allies joined … to overthrow the existing Liberal Establishment.”

That debate, billed as a meeting between a liberal and a conservative, prompted Mailer to assert: “I don’t care if people call me a radical, a rebel, a red, a revolutionary, an outsider, an outlaw, a Bolshevik, an anarchist, a nihilist, or even a left conservative, but please don’t ever call me a liberal.”

Mailer was never able to decide which of those terms was appropriate, living as he did the writer’s life according to standards set by his idol, Ernest Hemingway, and also living the life of a political activist with no coherent ideology, a rebel in search of a cause.

Mr. Schultz conveys the often meaningless swirl of the public life of the period. There’s an anecdote involving Mia Farrow and a butterfly, with Frank Sinatra lurking; cameo appearances by many of semi-literary/political celebrities littering the decade — Gore Vidal, Gloria Steinem, Lillian Hellman, Truman Capote complete with lisp, and even Abbie Hoffman, who claimed Mailer as an influence.

Mr. Schultz runs into trouble when his narrative hits the end of his time frame. The curtain drops in 1969, and that forces him to press his thesis, claiming that his protagonists were largely done, ready to exit stages right and left. But, in fact, they would do some of their best work in succeeding decades.

In 1979, Norman Mailer produced the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Executioner’s Song,” and in 1991 “Harlot’s Ghost,” a complex novel that never received the attention it deserved. As for Bill Buckley, he continued to edit his magazine, write columns, essays and books, make appearances and speeches, participate in debates, and mentor successive generations of young conservatives.

And in 1980, in no small part because of those efforts, Ronald Reagan, a close friend of Buckley‘s, was elected president of the United States, marking the end of “the existing Liberal Establishment,” as we’d come to know it.

Buckley and Mailer may not have “shaped the ‘60s,” as Mr. Schultz has it. But occasional lapses aside, he brings a good-natured, entertaining and, rare in academe, highly readable style to his treatment of two 20th century America patriots whose lives enriched us all.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).


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