At the end of his memoir about the deaths of his parents, Losing Mum and Pup, Christopher Buckley writes a “postlude” in which he says that he suspects he began writing the book “to enable catharsis,” but having finished, he now feels it was more “out of a basic need,” a need to keep the loved ones with him for just a little while longer. Buckley, as he says at the beginning, is a writer. It would be a pity, he continues, to waste such good material. But we know he doesn’t mean it. We understand he is burying his distress in irony. He is a writer and writers deal with the days of their lives, their joys, and their sorrows by writing.
Alfred Lord Tennyson, for example, in an attempt to deal with his grief over the early death of his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, turned to what he knew best. He wrote a poem, an elegy on the death of his friend, In Memoriam. Like Buckley, he gave some thought to the question of why he was writing. He was well aware that elegists in the past had been criticized for parading their sorrows in public. Someone who was truly distraught did not indulge in poetry, they were told. But Tennyson had an answer for that: “I do but sing because I must,/And pipe but as the linnets sing.” Writing is what writers do.
Losing Mum and Pup is no sentimental tear jerker. There may be a lump or two for the throat, but for every tear there are chuckles and snickers aplenty. Could one expect less from the author of Thank You for Smoking and Boomsday ? A satirist smirks because he must, but Buckley smirks as only one who feels deeply can smirk, indeed as only a Buckley can smirk. He laughs through tears and with love.
He never sugar coats. He recognizes his parents were human. They had the flaws common to us all. Patricia Buckley and William Buckley were not saints. To many they may have appeared larger than life: friends and companions of the rich and powerful, a socially and politically prominent power couple. But this would be only to outsiders, to the son who loved them, they would simply be Mum and Pup: Mum who might well tell a variety of different stories, none of them true, about why she left Vasser without finishing; Pup who would insist on sailing out into the middle of hurricane force storm because they had made plans to do so. His mother, he tells us, once claimed that the king and queen of England always stayed with her family at their home in Vancouver. His father impatiently walks off with the family in the middle of Christopher’s graduation ceremony and leaves him to have lunch by himself.
Although William Buckley, the icon of articulate conservative thought for a generation, may have thought himself the senior partner in their relationship, it is clear that Patricia played second fiddle to no one. She is a hostess of note, an elegant woman, a fashion setter. She is a fierce defender of both her husband and her son. Pup is the editor of the National Review, a prolific writer of fiction and non-fiction, a feared debater and gadfly. They were surrounded by the social, political, and cultural elite of their day: Henry Kissenger, Ronald Reagan, Norman Mailer. The names that are dropped in this book are legion: Teddy Kennedy, David Niven, Tom Wolfe, Bill Blass, George McGovern, George Bush, pere et fils, just to name a few. There are the devoted friends like Barry Goldwater; there are the bitter enemies like Gore Vidal.
The book is filled with memorable incidents, memories from the past, anecdotes about the terrible few months of sickness after Mum’s death and leading to Pup’s. And though the story he has to tell is heartbreaking, he is at great pains to treat it with a kind of mocking bravado that smacks of whistling past the graveyard. A passage from the eulogy he gave at his father’s memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral illustrates. “I was told,” he says, “that the music at this mass for my father would in effect be a dress rehearsal for the pope’s. I think that would have pleased him, thought doubtless he’d have preferred it to be the other way around. . . .”
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the book Christopher Buckley has written is that he has taken a man who had stood four square in favor of almost everything a flaming liberal like myself holds dear, who had always appeared the very model of an imperious pedant, he has taken that man and actually made him human, maybe even humane. When you put down this book, you may still despise the Buckley brand of politics, but it will be very difficult to find it in your heart not to find something to like the Buckleys, Mum and Pup. It will be very difficult not to feel the depth of Christopher’s loss.