Were an alien, in a happy state of ignorance, to drop out of the skies today and pick up a piece of the large, and daily increasing, oeuvre of William F. Buckley Jr., he would, I think, come to some interesting conclusions. Freed of preconceptions, knowing nothing about Buckley’s long-popular TV show, Firing Line, which he hosted for many years, or the political convictions that lie behind National Review, which he founded, the alien might come up with a very different image from the one that sometimes confounds the rest of us. He would see, I suspect, an earnest, largely cheerful man, not anxious to tax himself too strenuously, and yet eager, in a rather old-fashioned way, to pass on what he knows of recent history—and his sense of fun—to as many readers as possible.
The man’s interests (the alien would soon notice) are rooted, even in the age of globalism and of the Pacific Rim, in the issues of the cold war and of the war that led up to it; France, Germany, and Russia are his principal concerns abroad, and the people by whom he seems fascinated (James Jesus Angleton, say, the center of his 2000 novel Spytime) are hardly in many people’s thoughts today. While such contemporaries as Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal and John Updike chafe and prod at the state of things, investing even the lightest of their books with their driving concerns and a sense of exploration, Buckley’s work is distinguished mostly by its sense of ease. He seems content, in fact, to present himself as little more than a host, guiding visitors around the stately home of history.
The alien might know nothing of the two long columns of previous works listed at the beginning of every new book (with such titles as Cruising Speed, Racing Through Paradise, and WindFall). He might be unaware of the 1,429 episodes of what the author’s biography always calls “television’s longest-running program,” the 227 obituaries he has written (of everyone from E.E. Cummings and John Dos Passos to Jerry Garcia and John Lennon), even of the thirty-nine years of twice-weekly columns that take up 162 double-columned pages of his 310-page bibliography. What such a newcomer would be struck by, in fact, is not the sense of ambition, but rather its absence; the books he picked up randomly might baffle him in part through their seeming lack of interest in making, or scoring, a point. Most writers are anxious to insist on how much lies behind their work and how much the books into which they’ve thrown themselves aim to change a reader’s life; with Buckley, the impression is very much the opposite. At the beginning of his collection of speeches, Let Us Talk of Many Things, he tells us how little he puts into each oration and confesses that, during the seventy or more speeches he gives each year, he sometimes hardly knows whom he’s addressing or where he is; he seems to sit outside even himself (the author of See You Later Alligator) with a smile.
This insouciance raises the question, inevitably, of why this most easygoing of souls, as he appears to be, turns out books at such a furious rate. Of all current writers, Buckley seems among the ones least in need of ready cash; and the celebrity the books have brought him (or, more likely, consolidated) is of the kind that has removed him from serious consideration in many quarters. Some see him as the writer that the masses regard as an intellectual and that many intellectuals regard as one of the masses, producing books that hardly begin to overlap with those of many of his peers.
The easy answer to all this would be to say that he is a professional amateur of the old school, still more often found in Britain than here, akin to those men who throw off gardening books in their free hours, or write detective stories, say, when not running for public office. Buckley gives the impression of being eager to put every moment to use, though not being unduly concerned about what that use might be (not every writer, after all, would preserve for posterity his speech before the Girls Club of New York, his introductory remarks to the Sales Executives Club of New York, or a “valentine” offered to the society columnist Suzy). Read through several of his books in one go and you come away with a grand, and infectious, sense of diversion and amusement; you also enter a universe that seems to have no place for pain.
Take, for example, his recent novel Elvis in the Morning, a highly unexpected product even before one gets to the large picture of a shirtless Elvis on the back of the hardcover edition, the blurb from the author of Musical Chairs (“I loved this book”), and, on the inside back cover, a picture of the author that is, in fact, a “painting of Mr. Buckley” (at his least Elvisian). To prepare for this work, the opening pages tell us, Buckley read, among other tomes, The Elvis Encyclopedia, Good Rockin’ Tonight, and Let it Blurt, a biography of the gonzo rock critic Lester Bangs. He also paid a visit to Graceland, and the “Chief Executive Officer of Elvis Presley Enterprises” is warmly thanked.
As in many Buckley novels, the action that follows is seen through the eyes of a likable, largely guileless young man by the name of Orson Killere, who is growing up on an American army base in Germany in the Fifties, and is much taken by “the rapturous sound, the beat, the joy on the godlike face of the performer” known as Elvis Presley. When fourteen-year-old Orson is arrested for breaking into a PX in Wiesbaden to filch some Elvis records, and sentenced to thirty days’ confinement, the King gets wind of the act of devotion and suddenly descends to croon, “Missin’ you dahlin’, missin’ you” before the startled boy and his mother. From such unlikely beginnings a lifelong friendship is born.
As the book goes on, Orson develops, conveniently enough, into a kind of politicized Forrest Gump, getting expelled from Ann Arbor, where he is a student activist, in 1964, hoboing across America with a copy of On the Road and some joints, and falling into a company that’s beginning to make computers. In the middle of his journey he meets an equally fresh and openhearted Mormon girl (sometimes dressed in a “brand-new Goldwater-for-President sports shirt, the top two buttons unfastened”), and learns from her that “Mormons have problems, like everybody else.” As Elvis embarks upon his passage through Hollywood, the White House, and Las Vegas, Orson is brought into his circle as a token regular guy, and (more important, perhaps) as the kid who introduced the King to his teenage schoolmate Priscilla. When Elvis dies, Orson’s “eyes were flooded with tears” and he is left to wander down “memory lane.”
If a typical American, not blessed with an alien’s innocence, were to be asked what William Buckley is famous for, she would most likely mention conservatism and a large vocabulary. Yet it must be said that these are two of the tendencies least apparent in Elvis in the Morning, as in all of the Buckley novels I’ve read. Few conservatives I know in their seventies would devote so much of their already oversubscribed time to detailing the life of a “world revolutionary socialist” with such sympathy and sincerity—or would make him almost the moral center and guiding voice of a long narrative (to the point where we are moved to recall that “Orson” is a corruption of “our son,” and a way, perhaps, for Buckley to try to imagine himself into the younger generation of the Sixties). And at no point in the book does the language suggest excessive education.
In his opening pages, with customary grace, Buckley thanks an “extraordinary” copy editor, another copy editor, a member of his four-person unit who also “helped with the copy editing,” and at least five others who went through the manuscript, quite apart from his beloved editor, a “Philemon” to his “Baucis.” None of them, one has to assume, demurred when Elvis, singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to the fourteen-year-old Orson, reveals a face “wreathed with pleasure” (or seven pages later, when a woman invited to Elvis’s bed “gurgled her assent”). Nobody is likely to suspect that a stylist or a thinker is at work in these pages, and yet there is a kind of boyishness, a friendly absence of worldliness, that disarms some of one’s skepticism: “Lying naked at her side, he stroked and kissed her. She moved her hands about his body, coming to rest finally on his tremulous and worshipful sex. He hoped and prayed that it would last forever.”
One can easily read all 328 pages of Elvis in the Morning without knowing why exactly Mr. Buckley has seen fit to fill us in on Elvis’s opening act in 1975 (and then to amplify the details ten pages later), or why he wishes to immortalize the “great, booming caterwaul of Grace Slick.” The book startles one not with the pressure put upon the narrative, but rather with the almost complete absence of all pressure: people go through near-fatal accidents, revolutions break out, and no event is presented as more urgent than any other. In some ways the brisk skim across the decades reads like a blueprint for a screenplay (with Tobey Maguire, no doubt, taking the part of Orson). People who hear that Buckley has written about Elvis may assume that he is making a bid for the marketplace and hoping to attach himself to the glamour of one of America’s undying icons. Yet in reality he never tries to make his story racy or sensational (just as he never tries to make it searching or thoughtful or very suggestive). One comes away feeling that he probably wrote it in just the position of pastoral ease—sitting on a summer’s day outside a Connecticut country house—suggested by the “painting of Mr. Buckley.”
In certain ways, perhaps, the book allows him to take stock of the Six-ties, and of all the revolutions that turn around the world of his boy-hero, a champion debater who’s half-American and half-French. Yet as the story went on, I began to see another parallel being suggested by the large, glad-handing Southerner with a much younger woman at his side, and a grand charm always about to be undone by his appetites. Elvis is portrayed throughout as compulsively chatting people up, on the phone night and day, encircled by a war-room entourage, and given to ordering in girls to keep him company in the lonely hours of the night. When sometimes he so oversteps propriety that he seems about to self-destruct, Orson is brought in, like a fledgling George Stephanopoulos, to tell the boss all the things his full-time flunkies cannot say, and to soothe the waters with Priscilla.