“Losing Mum and Pup,”
by Christopher Buckley (Twelve Books/Hachette, 253 pages, $25)
You don’t have to be a devotee of William F. Buckley Jr.’s conservative politics to appreciate the family memoir written by his son, Christopher, the humorist who refers to himself, not just jokingly, as a 55-year-old orphan.
Both parents died within about a year, and his experience of those losses is the organizing principle of the book. But it’s really about the lives of the complicated and often infuriating pair he called Mum and Pup, about the challenging home in which he grew up as an only child and about the smart, stylish world his parents inhabited.
The tone of this story of two deaths is summed up in a phrase Buckley says his father often used: “Life goes on.” Generally, it goes on here with humor rather than hand-wringing, no matter how bad things get.
At times, Buckley offers a sort of guidebook for fellow baby boomers on late-stage care and understanding of dying parents. Even here, though, he finds mischievous laughs.
His hospital updates, e-mailed to family and friends as his father is treated for kidney and other ailments, get zanier as days drag on and the author gets punchier. One day, his seriocomic “Urine Report” describes the fluid’s color in the mock-argot of a pretentious wine review.
After his father is released, Henry Kissinger, a friend on the e-mail list, deadpans to Buckley: “I miss your urine reports.”
Buckley, a fine stylist though sometimes given to the 10-dollar word (“ukase,” “rubicund”), is clearly awed by his father’s productivity (50-plus books, and endless columns, speeches, TV shows) and proud of the literary and political circle surrounding him.
We meet the expected Republican stalwarts but also encounter George McGovern in a touching cameo; we see the atheist writer Christopher Hitchens lustily belting out a hymn at William Buckley’s memorial in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
We peep into the privileged Buckley sphere – his mother’s dazzle on the social circuit and as a patron of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where her son stages her memorial; his father’s retreats to the Swiss resort of Gstaad to complete another book.
For readers who enjoyed William Buckley’s bracing accounts of ocean crossings by sailboat, his son offers new perspective – noting, for example, that Buckley pere was known as “Captain Crunch” for his aggressive approach to docking.
“Great men always have too much canvas up. Great men always take risks,” Buckley writes. His affection for his Pup shows, but so do his sufferings under the great man’s ego and imperiousness.
His Mum receives perhaps even more ambivalent treatment. The memoir appears just two years after her death, and some feelings remain raw.
“I forgive you,” he blurts at her deathbed, later detailing for what – including hurtful instances of lying to loved ones that are painful to read.
For years, the younger Buckley made clear his agnosticism, which prompted “antler clashes” but also some creative efforts at conversion by his father, a famously traditionalist Roman Catholic.
After burying both parents, Buckley describes a daydream soliloquy:
“How did it turn out, Pup?” he writes, “Were you right after all? Is there a heaven? …
“And is Mum saying, ‘Bill you have got to speak to that absurd creature at the Gates and tell him he’s got to admit Christopher. It’s too ridiculous for words.’ ”
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