Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Book Review: The Relic Master, by Christopher Buckley (2015)

Cover of The Relic Master, by Christopher Buckley, 2015.

Christopher Buckley, 2015.
Christopher Buckley is most well-known for his satirical novels that poke fun at contemporary politics. His latest novel, The Relic Master, released in December of 2015, is set in the Holy Roman Empire of the 16th century. So, yes, it’s a bit of a change of pace for Buckley. But The Relic Master is a very successful change of pace, and the erudite wit that readers expect from Buckley is still to be found in generous quantities. 

The relic master in question is named Dismas, and he works for two different patrons, Frederick the Wise of Saxony, and Albrecht, the Archbishop of Mainz. Dismas travels far and wide searching for holy relics, which can be anything associated with saints or early Christian martyrs. And I do mean anything. The novel opens in 1517, with Dismas attending a relic fair in Basel. One vendor offers, “…the tongue (entire) of St. Anthony of Padua; an ampulla of the Virgin’s breast milk; a stone from the scala santa, the steps of Pilate’s palace; a few pieces of straw from the sacra incunabulum, the holy manger in Bethlehem; and shavings from the chains of St. Peter. A suspiciously vast array of goods.” (p.7)

People paid money to venerate these relics, and in return, they received time off from their time spent in purgatory after death. One of the funnier scenes in The Relic Master is when Albrecht and Friar Tetzel figure out how many years in purgatory each of the relics is worth. This practice was known as selling indulgences, and it was one of the main reasons why Martin Luther split from the Catholic Church. (Luther is a cause of much consternation throughout The Relic Master.

After losing all of his savings, Dismas decides to take advantage of the Archbishop of Mainz’s ravenous desire to own the burial shroud of Christ, and he enlists his good friend, the artist Albrecht Durer, to help him create a fake shroud. To say more about the plot would give too much away, and you probably know by this point in the review if the book sounds interesting or not. 

Buckley creates many vivid characters in The Relic Master, some of them based in history, others not. Dismas’ love interest in the book is Magda, a beautiful woman who has a strong background in apothecary, which comes in handy many times. My favorite minor character in the book was Rostang, a chamberlain with a verbal tic who has many funny lines. And in Dismas, Buckley has created a compelling lead character to follow through the story. Dismas has two of my favorite lines from the book:

“Witches cannot bear the touch of the crucified Jesus. Thank God for science.” (p.151) 

“Let me explain Christianity to you. Pilgrims make pilgrimages to atone. Do you think people walk hundreds of miles to grovel before relics because they feel wonderful about themselves? No. They do it because they think otherwise they will go to Hell.” (p.221, Dismas to Durer)

Throughout The Relic Master Buckley does an excellent job of giving the reader the necessary historical context, but it never feels dry or dull. The Relic Master is another highly entertaining work from one of our funniest writers.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Book Review: Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography, by William F. Buckley, Jr. (2004)

Cover of Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography, by William F. Buckley, Jr., 2004. Yes, that's my shelf reserved for books by William F. Buckley and his son Christopher Buckley. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

William F. Buckley, around the time Miles Gone By was published.
William F. Buckley, Jr. never wrote a conventional autobiography. The closest he came was his 2004 book Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography, in which he collects his favorite writings that are about him personally. Miles Gone By is a fantastic book, and it’s an essential read for anyone who is interested in learning more about Buckley’s life. Despite Buckley’s reputation as one of the main intellectuals behind the modern American conservative movement, politics do not play a large part in Miles Gone By. Miles Gone By is really about the man behind the politics, and partisans of either stripe can enjoy Buckley’s wit, joie de vivre, impressive vocabulary, and generous spirit, all of which are on full display. 

True to Buckley’s professed list of his joys in life, the section on sailing is the longest one in the book. Buckley’s passion for sailing comes through clearly on every page. It’s kind of amazing that this multi-hyphenate of a man was able to take the time to unwind and actually take a vacation.

Buckley was well known for being generous to his friends, and there are numerous examples of this throughout Miles Gone By, especially in a section entitled “Ten Friends” where Buckley describes briefly the first time he met ten famous friends. I think only William F. Buckley could name David Niven, Ronald Reagan, Tom Wolfe, Roger Moore, and John Kenneth Galbraith among his closest friends. Buckley was also well known for his finely penned obituaries, which he crafted for his magazine National Review, and there are some superb examples of those included in Miles Gone By as well.

Throughout Miles Gone By, I was struck by what a rich and full life William F. Buckley lived. He was truly a renaissance man. There’s an essay about Buckley playing a Bach concerto with a symphony orchestra. There’s an essay about Buckley descending down to the Titanic in the tiny French submarine Nautile, at a time when he was one of only about one hundred people in the world to have seen the wreck. There’s an excerpt from Buckley’s book The Unmaking of a Mayor, which chronicled his unsuccessful run for mayor of New York City in 1965. One of Buckley’s greatest quips was when someone asked him what he would do if he won the election. His response? “Demand a recount.” 

“My Own Secret Right-Wing Conspiracy” is a very entertaining essay about Buckley’s involvement in the John T. Gaty Trust. John T. Gaty was a wealthy Republican from Wichita, Kansas, who set up a trust fund to distribute part of his estate to organizations that were politically conservative. Gaty named some of the most prominent Republicans in the country as the trustees of his trust. That list included Buckley, Barry Goldwater, John Tower, Strom Thurmond, Edgar Eisenhower, Dwight’s more conservative brother, and J. Edgar Hoover. The trust began in 1967, and part of the stipulation of the trust was that the trustees would meet in person in Wichita to vote on how to allocate the funds. Amazingly enough, for seven years, everyone attended in person. (Hoover withdrew from the trust before the first meeting, as he made it a practice to not accept any trusteeships.) Buckley contends that the Gaty Trust played a key role in helping the conservative movement spread, as the trustees allocated a considerable amount of money to different organizations. 

My one criticism of Miles Gone By is that Buckley doesn’t always tell us where the pieces are from. Is this an article he wrote for a magazine? Does it come from a book of his essays? Is it something new he wrote just for the book? But that’s a small quibble for such a delightful book.

William F. Buckley was, first and foremost, a writer, and Miles Gone By proves that he was a damn good one. One of my favorite quotes from the book is this one: “Art of any sort is very, very serious business: that which is sublime can’t be anything less.” (p.16)

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Movie Review: Best of Enemies, a documentary directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, starring William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal (2015)

Poster for the 2015 documentary Best of Enemies, directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville.

Vidal and Buckley in the makeup chair, 1968.

William F. Buckley, threatening to do bodily harm to Gore Vidal, 1968.
Best of Enemies, an excellent 2015 documentary directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, takes a look at the relationship between authors William F. Buckley, Jr., and Gore Vidal. Specifically, the film examines the ten debates between Buckley and Vidal during the 1968 Republican National Convention, held in Miami Beach, and the Democratic National Convention, held in Chicago. Buckley and Vidal were hired by ABC News to provide commentary on the happenings at the conventions, and also to debate with each other on the various issues facing the country. 

Buckley and Vidal hated each other by the time they met on camera in 1968. In fact, the one person Buckley said he would not debate with was Gore Vidal. But ABC News hired Vidal anyway. Buckley and Vidal had previously sparred in 1964 at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco. That convention was the moment that Buckley’s right-wingers officially seized control of the Republican Party, as the nomination went to Senator Barry Goldwater rather than moderate Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller was heckled by the crowd with shouts of “lover!” as he attempted to address them. The taunt was a reference to his recent divorce and quick remarriage. Rockefeller told the audience, “It’s still a free country, ladies and gentlemen.” And while Goldwater went down to ignominious defeat in the fall, the seeds of a new Republican revolution were being planted. Just days before the 1964 Presidential election, actor Ronald Reagan gave a nationally televised half hour speech called “A Time for Choosing,” in support of Goldwater. The speech was responsible for Reagan’s entry into politics. When prominent California Republicans saw the speech, they immediately thought that Reagan might be a good candidate for the 1966 California Governor’s race. Never mind that Reagan had been a Democrat until 1962. Buckley was a good friend of Reagan’s, and one of the last books Buckley wrote was The Reagan I Knew, an ode to their friendship. 

Best of Enemies does a great job of showing us Buckley and Vidal’s lives and careers, and putting them in the context of their times. They were two of the leading American public intellectuals in 1968, back in the day when we actually had public intellectuals. Buckley was really the only choice ABC had for a conservative pundit, as he was the only conservative who was nationally known and was also an excellent speaker.

Vidal was partially to blame for Buckley’s rise as a media star, as he had mentioned Buckley in 1962 on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show, and Buckley was given time by Paar to answer or clarify statements that Vidal had made about him. When Buckley appeared on Jack Parr’s show, Paar was expecting to come face to face with an ignorant bigot. But Buckley proved to be a handsome, well-spoken intellectual. And then there was his voice. Mellifluous and rich, Buckley’s unique plummy accent was a mixture of his mother’s Southern drawl, the typical rich East Coast establishment accent, and a brief spell at a British boarding school. With his intense blue eyes and toothy grin, Buckley looked like a lost Kennedy cousin, perhaps from another line of the family that had turned conservative rather than liberal. Buckley’s obvious ease on camera led to him starting his own public affairs television show, Firing Line, in 1966. Firing Line ran for 33 years and more than 1,500 episodes. 

Gore Vidal also knew how to best present himself on camera. Vidal was also quite handsome, and like Buckley, he had a typical East Coast establishment accent. (It’s sometimes difficult to tell Buckley and Vidal’s voices apart. Also, no one on television in 2016 would be caught dead with such an “elitist” accent!) Vidal was a polished TV performer, and he prepared extensively for the debates with Buckley, hiring a researcher and rehearsing his seemingly ad-libbed insults to Buckley. Vidal was out for blood, and in the earlier debates in Miami Beach Buckley seems slightly flustered, having not correctly anticipated Vidal’s venom. It doesn’t take long before things get personal, with Vidal saying that Buckley was the inspiration behind his transsexual character Myra Breckinridge, which was one of the most scandalous novels of 1968. 

One of the best quotes during the debates was when Buckley said, “Freedom breeds inequality.” When prodded by Vidal, Buckley expounded further: “Unless you have freedom to be unequal, there is no such thing as freedom.” That struck me as a very true statement, but one that few people would actually own up to, since we like to think that freedom makes people more equal. You can have a society where everyone is equal, but that means you won’t have any freedom. And of course that’s never happened, because there’s never been a society where everyone is truly equal in every way.

The most infamous moment of the debates occurred in Chicago. Vidal and Buckley were discussing the anti-war protests and the extreme police response to them. Moderator Howard K. Smith said something about if the protestors raising a Viet Cong flag would be like raising a Nazi flag during World War II. Vidal then moved in for the kill, saying to Buckley, “As far as I’m concerned, the only sort of pro or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.” Buckley responded, “Now listen you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” You can tell from the clip how pissed off Buckley was, as he leaned over towards Vidal and it seemed for a moment that he might make good on his threat. Reid Buckley, Bill’s younger brother, said in the documentary, “I think Gore Vidal was fortunate that Bill didn’t punch him in the nose.” The moment quickly became notorious, as the usual decorum of a debate had devolved into vicious name-calling on both sides. 

Best of Enemies makes it clear that Buckley was troubled by the incident. I think Buckley was chagrined that he had resorted to the personal attack. As time went on, it became clear that the exchange with Vidal was the one time that Buckley ever lost his cool during a debate. In an effort to examine his feelings, Buckley wrote an essay for Esquire magazine, “On Experiencing Gore Vidal,” which was published in the August, 1969 issue. Vidal was allowed to respond, and his own essay, “A Distasteful Encounter with William F. Buckley, Jr.” was published in the September, 1969 issue. Both essays generated much controversy, and Buckley sued Vidal for libel, on the grounds that Vidal had implied that Buckley was gay. Vidal promptly countersued Buckley. The case ground through the courts for years, and eventually all the suits were dropped, with Esquire footing the bills for Buckley’s legal fees, and apologizing to Buckley in the pages of the magazine. Part of the settlement also stipulated that Vidal’s essay would not be republished in any future book. (It’s one of the rarest Vidal essays; it’s only been republished in Smiling Through the Apocalypse: Esquire’s History of the Sixties.) Buckley took the opportunity to declare legal victory, which of course irked Vidal. 

In the years following their encounter, the two men took different approaches to the incident. Buckley rarely mentioned it again, whereas Vidal never missed an opportunity to bash Buckley. To me, that speaks to the difference in character between Buckley and Vidal. My own politics are more in line with Gore Vidal’s than William Buckley’s, but from everything I’ve read about both of them, Buckley was by far the nicer person and better man. Vidal was an amazingly talented writer who wrote sentences of incomparable beauty. His range of gifts was immense, as he authored screenplays, essays, plays, and novels. And yet, at the same time, he was a rather nasty person. If you look at Vidal’s life, it’s full of feuds and fights. As Vidal once wrote, “Every time a friend succeeds, something inside me dies.” That quote sums up Gore Vidal so well that it’s actually the British title of Jay Parini’s 2015 biography of Vidal. (The title in the United States is Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal.) A quote that venomous would have never passed the lips of William F. Buckley, who was extremely generous and thoughtful to pretty much everyone he dealt with. Buckley could even strike up friendships with those on the opposite side of the aisle from him politically, like his famous friendship with the liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith. One has only to read some of Buckley’s more personal non-fiction, in books like Cruising Speed, Overdrive, and Miles Gone By to get a sense of his zest for life, and the friendships and relationships that made his life worthwhile. Buckley had a generous spirit, and Gore Vidal did not. Buckley had hobbies and passions, like sailing, painting, and playing Bach concertos on the harpsichord. Gore Vidal’s only passion was for himself. 

Buckley was even generous towards Gore Vidal’s talents as a writer. When asked in 1978 if he thought there were any good liberal writers, Buckley said, “Philip Roth and Norman Mailer. And Gore Vidal-in his essays-has great style.” (Conversations with William F. Buckley, Jr., p.79) Buckley could have easily used the question as an opportunity to attack Vidal, but he didn’t. In an incident described in Best of Enemies, after Buckley taped the last episode of Firing Line in 1999, Ted Koppel interviewed Buckley and showed the clip of him calling Vidal a queer. Buckley said nothing. When there was a break in taping, he hurried over to San Tanenhaus and said, “I thought that tape had been destroyed.” Buckley was still unwilling to say anything bad about Vidal, but if that clip had been shown to Vidal in a similar setting, I feel quite confident that he would have used it to attack Buckley.

Gore Vidal proved again what a jerk he was after Buckley passed away in 2008. Vidal wrote an essay in which he savaged Buckley, writing, “RIP WFB-in hell.” Well, that’s subtle and clever. Gore Vidal never had a kind word for anyone. There was no forgiveness possible in his egocentric world. Christopher Buckley, WFB’s son, wrote of Vidal in 2012, after Vidal’s passing, “…one was left to wonder what it was within him that animated such hatred in him, at such a late stage?... Why was Vidal’s cauldron of bile still set, not on ‘simmer’ but on high in his final years? WFB had—to my knowledge—not once opened his mouth or uncapped his pen against his old adversary since the early 1970’s. I was present, on a number of occasions when WFB was accosted by an interviewer or lunch guest, asking for comment about Vidal. Without exception, he demurred—and demurral was emphatically not WFB’s default position.” 

One of the saddest moments in Best of Enemies is a clip of William Buckley being interviewed by Charlie Rose in March, 2006, less than two years before Buckley’s death.

Rose: “Do you wish you were 20?”
WFB: “No, absolutely not. If I had a pill which would reduce my age by 25 years, I wouldn’t take it.”
Rose: “Why not?”
WFB: “Because I’m tired of life.”
Rose: “Are you really?”
WFB: “Yeah. I really am. I’m utterly prepared to stop living on. There are no enticements to me that justify the weariness, the repetition.” 

Even as Buckley says this, his eyes still sparkle. The indefatigable William F. Buckley still managed to write four more books in the less than two years he had left on Earth. 

Best of Enemies is a superb documentary, and it is essential viewing for fans of Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley. My vote for the most entertaining person in the documentary goes to Reid Buckley, Bill’s younger brother, who looks and sounds just like Bill. It’s clear that Reid had the same joie de vivre that his older brother did. 

One final quote on the whole matter, which the directors used at the very end of the movie, and seems an apt summing up: “There is an implicit conflict of interest between that which is highly viewable, and that which is highly illuminating.”-William F. Buckley.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Book Review: Conversations with Tom Wolfe, edited by Dorothy Scura (1990)

Conversations with Tom Wolfe, 1990. This is my Tom Wolfe book shelf, which is rapidly growing. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

Tom Wolfe, looking dapper as always at his desk, 2012.
I’ve been on a Tom Wolfe kick lately, so after finishing The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, (reviewed here) I decided to read Conversations with Tom Wolfe, part of the University Press of Mississippi’s excellent series that compiles interviews with well-known authors. Conversations with Tom Wolfe, edited by Dorothy Scura, is an excellent look at one of the most important American writers of the last fifty years. The only drawback to Conversations is that the book is now rather dated, since it came out in 1990, and therefore only covers the first half of Wolfe’s writing career. That caveat aside, Conversations is a great book if you’re interested in learning more about the ideas behind some of Tom Wolfe’s books.

The second article in the book is a very good 1966 Vogue interview by Elaine Dundy, the ex-wife of drama critic Kenneth Tynan, and an accomplished writer herself. I quoted that piece several times in my recent review of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. 

Another interesting interview is the transcript of a 1975 episode of William F. Buckley’s television show Firing Line, during which Wolfe discusses his book about the New York City art scene, The Painted Word. (If you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can watch nearly every episode of Firing Line.) Watching the episode of Firing Line is even more entertaining than reading the transcript, and worth it just to hear the dulcet tones of William F. Buckley as he caressingly pronounces the title of Wolfe’s book, “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.” 

Of course, most of the articles and interviews make note at some point of Wolfe’s clothes, as his familiar white suit became his trademark look. In a 1980 interview, Wolfe used his clothes to make a larger point about his writing. Wolfe said, “In the beginning of my magazine-writing career, I used to feel it was very important to try to fit in…and it almost always backfired…I realized that not only did I not fit in, but because I thought I was fitting in in some way, I was afraid to ask such very basic questions as, what’s the difference between an eight-gauge and seven-gauge tire, or, what’s a gum ball, because if you’re supposed to be hip, you can’t ask those questions. I also found that people really don’t want you to try to fit in. They’d much rather fill you in.” (Conversations with Tom Wolfe, p.148-9) In a 1981 interview, Wolfe said, “You just discover after a while that people like to be asked questions they know the answers to.” (p.165) That’s terrific advice for anyone trying to have a conversation with another person. 

Throughout much of the time period that Conversations with Tom Wolfe focuses on, Wolfe was contemplating making the jump from non-fiction to fiction. Wolfe had long argued that the non-fiction of the 1960’s and 1970’s was capturing the zeitgeist in a way that the fiction of those decades was not. Wolfe was also an adherent of naturalism in fiction, and he decided that he should finally put his theories about fiction to the test with his first novel. Wolfe wanted to write a book that captured the feel of New York City, and he toyed with calling it Vanity Fair. Wolfe’s first novel was eventually published in 1987 as The Bonfire of the Vanities, and it became a huge bestseller. According to Harper’s magazine, Wolfe used 2,343 exclamation points in The Bonfire of the Vanities! (p.255) 
One of the best pieces in Conversations with Tom Wolfe is the long 1987 Vanity Fair article by Toby Thompson, “The Evolution of Dandy Tom.” Thompson is one of the only authors who used Wolfe’s reportorial technique of having different scenes in the piece, and he also interviewed several people close to Wolfe, which allows the reader to get a more personal look at Wolfe.

There are a couple of humorous anecdotes that Wolfe relates about the “other” Tom Wolfe, the novelist Thomas Wolfe, author of Look Homeward, Angel, and You Can’t Go Home Again. Wolfe said, “I was always convinced, incidentally, that Thomas Wolfe was kin to me, and it was very hard for my parents to convince me that he wasn’t.” (p.169) In another interview, Wolfe spoke of his father, Thomas Wolfe Sr., and he said, “I always thought of him as a writer. He kept the novels of Thomas Wolfe on his bookshelf, and for years I thought he’d written them.” (p.201) 

Throughout Conversations with Tom Wolfe there are many examples of Wolfe’s sharp observations on American society and life. Speaking about Watergate in a 1988 interview with Bill Moyers, Wolfe said, “This is a very stable country politically, very stable. Richard Nixon thrown out of office, forced out. Not only was there no junta rising from the military to take over the situation, there wasn’t even one demonstration by Republicans or anybody else. In fact, as far as I know, there wasn’t even a drunk Republican who threw a brick through a saloon window.” (p.248) 

If you’re interested in learning more about Tom Wolfe, Conversations with Tom Wolfe is a great place to start.