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Overdrive’: An Exchange

In response to:

Happy Days Are Here Again from the October 13, 1983 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of my book Overdrive [NYR, October 13] John Gregory Dunne says any number of interesting things but perhaps (space here is the dominant consideration) focus is most readily achieved by analyzing his summary of a single episode as extensively as necessary.

Here is what he wrote:

Mr. [Martin] Nolan and Mr. Buckley…engaged in a spirited correspondence (recorded in Overdrive) after the former took over as editor of the [Boston] Globe‘s editorial and Op-Ed pages. Mr. Buckley did not think the Globe was running his column often enough (the result, he contends, of Mr. Nolan’s personal antagonism toward him) and Mr. Nolan did not think the columns were good enough, or as good as George Will’s. Mr. Buckley sharply complained and Mr. Nolan canceled his column…. Mr. Nolan asked the paper’s circulation manager if there had been any loss of circulation after Mr. Buckley’s departure to the Boston Herald American and the circulation manager said no. There the matter was dropped.

That which the above poses as having summarized reveals, I think, more about the reviewer than about the incident, let alone the author’s purposes in recounting it.

My letter to the editor-in-chief of the Boston Globe, reproduced in Overdrive, complained of the infrequency with which my column was being used in the Globe before the arrival of Mr. Nolan. It petitioned for a release from the contract my syndicate had with the Globe, stressing the improbability that the appointment of Mr. Nolan as editorial page director would favorably affect the column’s scheduling fortunes given that, in 1977, Mr. Nolan had told a reporter for The Washingtonian that he (who discovered George some time after I had appointed him Washington editor to National Review) thought the world of George Will—“he’s not a cheap-jack careerist like Buckley, who spent so much time trying to justify the Nixon administration.” I pointed out in my letter to the editor a half dozen public stands I had taken in opposition to Mr. Nixon, including my resignation from a commission to which he had appointed me; the organization of a group of dissenters from Nixon’s policies, which organization’s manifesto was published on the front page of The New York Times; my endorsement in the New Hampshire primary of President Nixon’s primary opponent; and a public call on Mr. Nixon to resign his office. “To suggest that I was a Nixon careerist under the circumstances would seem to reveal more about Mr. Nolan’s familiarity with the writers he speaks about, than about my record with respect to Mr. Nixon.”

What then happened was that I received a letter from Mr. Nolan in which he made no reference whatever to his published, four-year-old, comprehensive denunciation of my character. Instead he took the novel tack—novel in that none of the 300 other editors who publish my column had taken it—that I was simply writing too often to maintain my beautiful pristine standards and should consider reducing my volume to two columns per week.

Now in Overdrive, I examined a masochistic inner compulsion I occasionally yield to, and have once or twice led the protagonist of my novels also to succumb to: Namely the response to which the reaction is predictably lethal. So I wrote to Mr. Nolan: “I have not approached you with a request that you appraise my work. If you wish to evaluate it, I suggest you put in to review the seventh volume of my collected columns which Doubleday will bring out next year.”

This resulted (over the protests of the editor-in-chief, who however declined, as explained in my book, to exercise a veto) in my dismissal—as I knew it would do. Even so, I found the episode voluptuously satisfying, autobiographically revealing, and journalistically interesting. Mr. Dunne’s coda—that the circulation of the Globe did not dip on my removal—will strike anyone with professional knowledge of journalism as laughable. The circulation of the Globe would not dip with the removal of Doonesbury; though probably it would dip if William Shakespeare were to write for it, even if only twice a week.

My principal point here is that where I attempted to be revealing in my book, Mr. Dunne simply rewrote me into a drab…genteel…humdrum…conventionalism for which he then proceeded to take me to task.

But having said as much, I hasten to confess that I would not attempt to write a book that met the extraordinary demands of Mr. Dunne. “Among those of his huge cast of characters who are known personally to me,” says Dunne-the-Betrayed, “there is incidence of alcoholism, drug addiction, pederasty, pedophilia, adultery, cuckoldry, and various other manifestations of life’s stigmata, not a hint of which darkens Mr. Buckley’s journal.”

So Uly Grosbard and I went to the L.A. morgue with two homicide cops at 2 in the morning. There must have been 500 bodies in there. The smell isn’t too bad, but it’s a little high, so you smoke a cigar. The whole thing just blew me away. It just blew my mind. I came home and woke Joan up and said, “Babe, this is something you’ve got to see.”

Thus Mr. Dunne a year ago to N.Y. Times interviewer Michiko Kakutani (May 3, 1983), on which I comment that if I had come home after that experience, I would not have woken Joan up, not even if the corpses were every one of them those of innocent Salvadoreans.

I can understand novels in which it becomes necessary to recount in detail what goes on in morgues. What I have never understood is the felt need to write novels in order to write about morgues. Mr. Dunne regrets that I see life without shadows, which isn’t true—he simply didn’t report the shadows, not in the Boston Globe story, nor in a dozen other episodes recounted. Miss Kakutani quotes Dunne as tending to make his heroes men who, in the words of Mr. Dunne, “play life on the dark keys” and “accept venality as a constant of the human condition.” “Put a writer with a tendency for misanthropy in front of a typewriter,” Dunne continued, “and the possibility exists that someone, usually someone unsuspecting, is going to get mugged.”

Right-ho! Was it that I did anything personally offensive to him, to provoke this mugging? Dunne begins his review by reporting that he and I have had “fitful” correspondence over the years and that during the 1960’s I would end my epistles, “Pots of love.” But you see, those notes, while perhaps addressed to the couple, were really directed to his wife who, of the two, was my friend, and signed off her infrequent notes to me, “Love.” Is he suggesting that, notwithstanding what he calls my “voracious generosity of spirit,” I interrupted my valentines? No, I think not.

It is far more complicated than this. Mr. Dunne resents any book by a writer who, looking about him, sees other than through the eyes of Hieronymus Bosch. I confess to having spent an hour—maybe as much as two, or three hours—in the company of men and women without once asking myself the question whether I was in fact conversing with a coprophiliac. A week before seeing Mr. Dunne’s review I had a letter; “If youth ever listen [to what you wrote] (which must be a question) you will teach them not to take the sacred elixir of life and splash it all over the roadside, as they are too prone to do.” That was the comment on Overdrive by Louis Auchincloss, whose advice is not heeded even by writers some of whom can no longer blame their affliction on youth. Lance Morrow of Time Magazine writes, “I was just thinking about your book again, and about several exceptionally stupid reviews of it that I read. It seems to me that there was some massive point-missing going on there, But I can’t quite account for it. Well, maybe I can at that.”

Not easy. People Magazine said of it, “Less confident men would be embarrassed to flaunt themselves so openly, but Buckley is obviously never shy.” On the other hand Mr. Dunne is complaining: “[Buckley] is really not very giving about himself.” People Magazine would shrink to four pages if the editors suddenly found it “embarrassing” to exhibit a curiosity about people ten times greater than any I would consent to satisfy. Meanwhile Mr. Dunne’s treatment of the book is in about every instance on the order of his treatment of my exchange with the Boston Globe: exercises in etiolation. Thus, “[Buckley] spends every February and March skiing in Switzerland.” That is on the order of my reporting, “Mr. Dunne spends every morning brushing his teeth.” My skiing occupies as much of my day in Switzerland as Mr. Dunne’s walking does his days in Los Angeles.

But oh how he worries about me! “The show has been on the road too long…. Mr. Buckley has spread himself so thin that he has begun to repeat himself, repeatedly. Overdrive is Cruising Speed Redux as last year’s Atlantic High is Airborne Redux…. As might be expected, Mr. Buckley is unrepentant.”

Really, how very silly. As well complain that I edit a 28-year-old magazine which will celebrate the fourth of July yet again on the fourth of July. I have written a dozen nonfiction books, five novels, and a few books that are not routinely described, though they are easily damned. (“The only people who don’t like Overdrive,” a friend paused to say after seeing the mail it has provoked alongside many of the reviews it has received, “are people who are paid to read it.”) In 1985, I shall write a book called Pacific High, patterned after the first two. The literary technique explored in Cruising Speed—I think of it, occasionally, as on the order of the invention of the stage—is so brilliantly successful I intend to repeat it ten years hence, and ten years after that. At which point I shall be happy to review John Gregory Dunne’s True Confessions IV, inasmuch as I am certain there will be great wit in it as there was in its progenitor, as also in True Confessions Redux, published last year. I promise in my next book to scratch up a friend about whom I can say something truly unpleasant if Greg Dunne promises in his next book to come up with a murdered woman who doesn’t have a votive candle protruding from her vagina.

Wm. F. Buckley, Jr.
New York City

John Gregory Dunne replies:

Mr. Buckley’s imperial, yet sweet and oddly touching letter reminds me of a student’s petition to get his grade raised. I thought Atlas would shrug.

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