Buckley at Work

William F. Buckley Jr. began and ended his public career as a writer, and judging from his staggering output it seems clear that he considered the printed word his primary means of communication in spite of his myriad other time-consuming pursuits. In the year or so since Mr. Buckley’s passing, journalists and commentators of all political stripes have pored over the conservative giant’s extensive oeuvre in an attempt to pin down his intellectual legacy. Little attention has been paid, however, to the novels that took up so much of his time and attention during the last thirty years of his life.

It seems clear that the writing of fiction was very important to Buckley. Consider this fact: he published twenty novels between 1976 and 2007. In that same period of time he issued only ten nonfiction works that did not consist of previously published material. By his own admission, many of his newspaper columns were thrown together quickly just before deadline. All of this leads to the question: he may have fancied himself a novelist first and foremost, but are the books any good?

The short answer is yes, they are good. Mostly. But they could have been tremendous, and the space between what they could have been and what they are is a small tragedy. That realization dampens—ever so slightly—the enjoyment one takes from the reading of these briskly paced entertainments.

I remember a conversation I had ten years ago with a fellow aspiring writer concerning Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. I felt that the sheer exuberance of Fleming’s writing allowed the stories to sail straight through the sometimes stilted dialogue and nonsensical plot twists. I believe these are great books, very underrated.

“That’s true,” my friend said, “but at heart Fleming was a hack writer. If you want to read what a really gifted writer can do with spy stories, you should dip into William Buckley’s Blackford Oakes series.”

My friend was partly right, although, looking back with ten years’ more reading under my belt, I would contend that John le Carre would have been the proper author to recommend in that formulation. Nevertheless, Buckley was a very gifted writer—which makes his novels all the more frustrating; he chose to run on the fumes of his natural talent while Fleming and others had to struggle ferociously to hit their marks. Consider Buckley’s second novel Stained Glass, which is two embarrassing sex scenes and one overwrought epilogue away from being a classic of the espionage genre. What wonders a stern editor and a rewrite could have done! But Buckley was always on to the next thing. Whatever state a book was in at the end of his annual three-month ski vacation was the state in which it was published.

Even so, Stained Glass leaves an impression. The plot finds young C.I.A. agent Oakes dispatched to West Germany in the early 1950s. His assignment: assassinate Alexis Wintergrin, a charismatic young politician aspiring to the chancellery with the reunification of Germany as his platform. The American government fears Wintergrin will stir up the masses, which could lead to a confrontation with the Soviet Union and—potentially—the start of World War III. Oakes is deeply conflicted, as he admires Wintergrin’s personal character and political aims and isn’t convinced his superiors are making the right call. Yet he proceeds toward the objective. This book treads in waters of deep moral ambiguity—a surprising turn from the usually self-certain editor of National Review. As for the sex scenes, the less said the better. Buckley was no Anais Nin, but he rather embarrassingly attempted a pastiche.

Stained Glass features some beautifully realized characters—some historical and some fictional—the least interesting of which is Oakes himself, who comes across as a stand-in for the author. But the pacing is good, the suspense palpable, and the resolution of Oakes’ dilemma wholly unexpected.

There are eleven Oakes novels, and taken together they comprise a fascinating shadow history of American covert activities from the 1950s through the 1990s. Whether or not one agrees with Buckley’s pro-interventionist philosophy, they are enjoyable and informative reads.

In the 1990s, Buckley for the most part abandoned the spy genre in favor of literary fiction. The most interesting of these later works is his largely apolitical 1995 novel Brothers No More. Of all of his books, Brothers starts off with the greatest promise, but the novel’s inability to live up to that initial promise results in Buckley’s most jarring failure.

The plot is rich with potential: an incident during World War II forges a lifelong bond between two soldiers, one of whom covers for the other’s temporary loss of nerve during a crucial battlefield moment. But back in civilian life, it is the “coward” who becomes an upstanding citizen while the “hero” sinks into corruption and vice. The first half of the book is uniformly excellent. I honestly had the feeling when reading it that I had discovered an unheralded American classic. Then, somewhere in the middle, it all goes pear-shaped. So many balls get dropped that the reader practically collapses under their weight. A major subplot involving one character’s sexual orientation is abandoned, leaving the impression that Buckley decided not to venture down that particular road but lacked the patience or effort to go back and revise his own story. The introspection of the first chapters gives way to the trappings of a lurid potboiler: Murders and cover-ups? Check. Steamy sex scenes? Check. Blackmail? Check. Plot-summarizing monologues delivered with mustache-twirling abandon? Check. It turns into one of those books you want to throw at the wall.

2003’s Getting It Right is an improvement, integrating Buckley’s political, historical, and creative interests to produce a story of the founding of “modern conservatism” (fusionism). What the book really has going for it is its ability to elevate the battle of ideas to the level of high drama. The debate between Ayn Rand’s Objectivists, the John Birch Society, and the National Review crowd is rendered with the urgency of a high-stakes thriller. This is a singular feat. Real life personalities such as Barry Goldwater, John F. Kennedy, and especially Ayn Rand are all characterized effectively. Less convincing is the protagonist, Woodroe Raynor. We are told at the beginning of the story that he is a Mormon, but this important fact is rarely mentioned again, which leads one to wonder why Buckley drew our attention to it in the first place. It seems to be a transparent plot device—an excuse to get Raynor out to Hungary on a mission trip so he can, as the dustjacket says, “experience firsthand the workings of Communist repression.”

In Getting It Right, more so than in any of his other books, Buckley indulges in his annoying penchant for inserting himself into the story. Obviously, it would have been impossible for him to write about these people and this era without mentioning his role in the events, but the manner in which he does so is self-aggrandizing and distracting: he is never seen but his name keeps popping up in other characters’ conversations, bringing to mind the ubiquitous Keyser Soze from the movie The Usual Suspects. We have Rand fuming over Buckley’s insistence on the existence of God; we have quotes from the letters between Buckley and Whittaker Chambers; we even have Buckley’s mother—described as strikingly beautiful and glamorously attired—presiding over a lavish soiree for the Young Americans for Freedom. What we don’t have—in these scenes or anywhere else—is serious intellectual weight. Some substance is sorely needed to undergird the breezy, gossipy parade of personalities. Once again, this is a real shame. I am quite fond of this book and flew right through it, but I have to acknowledge that it has no chance of standing up alongside The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. Buckley astutely illuminates the flaws in Rand’s philosophy, but he offers nothing coherent to take its place.

There is much to recommend in Buckley’s novels; they are easy to read and often very exciting. But in his excellent grasp of language, strong characterization skills, and an intuitive sense of good plotting, he was capable of so much more. His very own Atlas Shrugged lay just below the surface, and if he had taken only one year off from the TV punditry, high-power socializing, and global jet-setting and sat down and written the damn thing, his legacy as serious novelist would have been assured. I am reminded here of the correspondence between Antebellum Southern novelist William Gilmore Simms and his friend James Henry Hammond. Hammond repeatedly urged Simms to focus on producing “One Great Work” by which he could be remembered, something Simms never quite achieved. Hammond’s letter of December 18, 1846, in which he chastises the writer for spending too much time in the ephemeral world of politics, applies equally well to Buckley:

“You have abilities capable of _anything_. The wide range of your powers is the greatest failing of your intellect. Consummate efforts in any line are neither appreciated nor rewarded here & you have therefore indulged yourself too much in wantonly sporting through all. I have in other words often rebuked you for this. I don’t think you want the power, but the will to concentrate–without an immediate and active stimulant. (…) The immortality you might achieve (from producing one “Great Work”) would be worthy of the finite sacrifice.”

On August 2, 1852, Hammond described what this work might look like:

“Here too you might open & pour out all your fountains of Philosophy & sow all your flowers of poetry & freshen and brighten the whole with the perpetual verdure of your felicitous Narrative. My dear Simms, this is _the_ work to be done and you are _the_ Man to do it.”

The advice was never heeded. Simms had many pressing financial concerns that kept him from being able to devote his energies to one overarching project. Buckley, on the other hand, did not have this excuse. In the end, he had the opportunity but lacked the will. It is our loss.

-Special thanks to Dr. Jeffery J. Rogers for background information on the Simms/Hammond correspondence.

Robert Dean Lurie is the author of No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and The Church.