Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Book Review: But Enough About You, by Christopher Buckley (2014)

Cover of But Enough About You, by Christopher Buckley, 2014.

Christopher Buckley
Christopher Buckley’s most recent book is But Enough About You, a collection of essays he has written for various publications over the last 15 years. Buckley is one of my favorite writers, and I devoured But Enough About You with delight. The pieces collected in But Enough About You are a true grab-bag, running the gamut from humorous to serious. However, the essays collected here work well together, even though they span a decade and a half. As a writer, Buckley is consistently funny, witty, and smart. His prose entertains and informs, as he sprinkles witty bon mots throughout. 

But Enough About You also includes more serious pieces, and for me these were some of the highlights of the book. Buckley’s essay about visiting Auschwitz with his father was quite moving, as was his tribute to his late friend Christopher Hitchens. There is an excellent essay on Buckley’s relationship with President George H.W. Bush. Buckley was a speechwriter for then-Vice President Bush from 1981 until 1983, and his admiration for Bush is clear. Another fascinating personal essay was “Dear Joe,” about Buckley’s correspondence and friendship with Joseph Heller, the author of Catch-22. My only criticism of “Dear Joe” is that while Heller’s letters to Buckley are quoted, Buckley’s letters to Heller are not. Buckley may have thought that his letters would not be of interest, but he sells himself short, as his authorial gifts are many. 

I was particularly fascinated by Buckley’s 2012 essay on the death of Gore Vidal. Here a little historical backstory is required. Back in 1968, Vidal and William F. Buckley, leading light of the conservative movement and Christopher’s father, squared off in a series of televised debates during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. During one debate, Buckley and Vidal got into a rather heated exchange, with Vidal calling Buckley a “crypto-Nazi,” and Buckley responding in kind by calling Vidal a “queer.” The following year, both men wrote articles for Esquire magazine about the event. Vidal’s article had some rather nasty things to say about Buckley, who ended up suing Vidal and Esquire for libel. Buckley won the case, and with it the eternal enmity of Gore Vidal. While Buckley refrained from criticizing Vidal in print, Vidal never missed a chance to lay into Buckley.  In keeping with his cranky nature, Vidal had only nasty things to say upon Buckley’s death in 2008. Adding insult to injury, as was his wont, Vidal also insulted Christopher Buckley, calling him “creepy” and “brain dead.” Christopher Buckley has every right to hate Gore Vidal and say nasty things about him when he died in 2012. But Buckley doesn’t, and instead crafted an intelligent essay that acknowledged both Vidal’s strengths as a writer and his faults as a human being. As a fan of both William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, I can safely say that while politically I agree much more with Vidal, William F. Buckley was twice the man Gore Vidal was. 

Ironically, But Enough About You doesn’t include what might be Christopher Buckley’s most famous, or notorious, short essay, “Sorry Dad, I’m Voting for Obama,” which was published on The Daily Beast website in October, 2008. Buckley hated the title of the piece, and he demanded that the editors change it. (They didn’t.) In the essay, Buckley explained the reasons why he was voting for Barack Obama rather than John McCain in the 2008 election. Buckley’s reasons were quite rational, as he wrote, “Obama has in him…the potential to be a good, perhaps even great leader. He is, it seems clear enough, what the historical moment seems to be calling for.” So as to not unduly antagonize the right wing, Buckley purposely did not publish the piece in the pages of National Review, the magazine his father started, and for whom he had recently begun writing a column. Nevertheless, the piece caused the right wing to virulently turn against Buckley, and it forced him to resign from National Review. The kerfuffle over Buckley’s piece is a good example of how the Republican party has purged itself of any dissenting voices. In the essay Buckley quotes his father as saying, “You know, I’ve spent my entire life time separating the Right from the kooks.” Well, now it’s the Tea Party and their kooks separating the Right from anyone with half a brain. 

If you’re a fan of Christopher Buckley’s satirical novels, you will surely enjoy But Enough About You, and the humor of essays like “The Origin and Development of the Lobster Bib-Volume II: Rome to the Present Era,” and “How to Write Witty E-Mail (Hint: Pretend They’re Telegrams),” a 1998 essay that was the first piece I ever read by Christopher Buckley.

No comments: