Buckley, père et filsFATHER RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA
Christopher Buckley’s recent memoir admits that it is difficult to be the son of a great man. It is more difficult still if you are not a good son.
In his memoir, Losing Mum and Pup, Christopher Buckley, the only son of William F. and Patricia Buckley, reflects on both parents dying within a year of each other. The great and the good have all taken notice. That the late William F. Buckley was a great man is not in dispute, a man of prodigious talent who became one of the few truly consequential public intellectuals of his time. The book forces the reader to the reluctant conclusion that whatever the flaws of Buckley père, Buckley fils is not behaving as a good son.
Christopher Buckley is a marvellous writer, author of several justly acclaimed comedic novels. A celebrated satirist, he moves easily in the New York society world of which Pat Buckley was one of the great matrons. He is gifted and successful and wealthy. Yet despite all that, he decided to write this unseemly book, which takes a strange delight in detailing the character flaws, weaknesses and failings of his parents.
There is nothing in the son's account that will fundamentally change the assessment of his parents' merits. But there is much that is simply embarrassing. Perhaps Bill Buckley was a neglectful father, too reliant on prescription medication, and prone to public urination. Perhaps Pat Buckley was a woman who never read a nonfiction book, told lies as a matter of course and was too proud to ask her son for forgiveness for her many sins against him.
And at heart that is what this disappointing book is about. Christopher Buckley acknowledges that he had good parents, but they were busy saving and entertaining the world, so little Christopher was slighted from time to time. And Christopher never forgot those slights -- not the time he was in hospital while his father was overseas (as detailed in today's excerpt), not the time his mother was mean to his daughter's friend, not the time his father didn't like his novel, not the time his mother stopped opening his letters, not the time his father was too cheap to buy Champagne.
Now that his parents are dead, it is time for a reckoning. The world will know that it was not easy being Christopher Buckley. Among his dozens of books, Bill Buckley wrote one on gratitude. Christopher appears not to have read it.
"I took a lot of stuff out -- it simply did not need to [be] put on public display," Christopher told Charlie Rose, implying that he has been restrained. The original manuscript has been sent to the Buckley archives at Yale and will be available after Christopher's death. So in death, Christopher will take a few more shots at the memory of his parents.
At the memorial Mass for Bill Buckley last year at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, many of us had a foreboding sense that this was coming. In the memoir, Christopher reveals that the White House wanted to send then vice-president Dick Cheney to honour the godfather of the conservative movement. Christopher refused on the grounds that there could be only two eulogies, and he did not want to sacrifice his spot to the vice president.
He should have. Christopher embarrassed himself, telling awkward jokes about putting peanut butter and his mother's ashes into his father casket, with her posthumously complaining about the stickiness of it all. Nice image. It got worse, as Christopher revealed that he was deaf to the music that was the score to his father's life. He asked us to consider what would be a suitable epitaph for his father. Indeed, Bill Buckley had already answered that question: "I know that my Redeemer liveth." But Christopher opted for something else. Not the holy writ of the Book of Job, but Robert Louis Stevenson: "Home from the sailor, home from the sea."
Poignant, but it misses the main point -- the Catholic faith that animated his father does not regard the grave as a home, but a way station. In the pages excerpted in the National Post on Saturday, Christopher wrote about his father's consideration of suicide, which was appealing save "for the religious aspect." But "the religious aspect" was the heart of Bill Buckley's life, not one consideration among others. The Christian disciple faces temptation, but prays for the courage to resist. That a diseased, dying and bereaved man would consider suicide is not surprising; that he would resist the temptation is a triumph of faith and virtue. It is like the faithful husband who is tempted to adultery and resists; the fidelity, not the temptation, is the story.
In piling up his parents' failings, the son misses all this. The sadness of Christopher Buckley's memoir is that, in the religious aspect as well as others, he lost his father long before he died.
Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Buckley, père et fils." National Post, (Canada) June 8, 2009.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
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