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The Buckley Way of Death

Christopher Buckley’s memoir of his parents’ last days, Losing Mum and Pup, is already causing indigestion in some circles. The NY Times ran a (very good) distillation [1]this past weekend. Or if you just want the scandalous bits, see Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post [2]. Certain pundits, such as David Klinghoffer in a particularly nasty post [3], think that CB’s portrait of his folks is downright disrespectful, particularly for revealing that WFB was taking a lot of drugs — Stilnox and Ritalin — and contemplated suicides in the months leading up to his death (of natural causes, I hasten to add). Rod Dreher is a little more sympathetic [4] to CB, but thinks he characterizes his mother as ” a mean, lying bitch” — which is not at all how the book read to me. Patricia Taylor Buckley, whom I never met, was renowned as a strong-willed and sometimes mischievous woman, not to mention a defiant Pat Buchanan supporter. Her son couldn’t reasonably paint her as a shrinking violet.

The book, which I picked up last weekend, is as breezy a read as CB’s novels, something that’s a little disconcerting given the subject matter. It’s not a work of deep philosophical reflection — or even casual reflection — on grief, death, or father-son relationships. (The book opens with Pat’s death; the rest recounts WFB’s final months.) The book was written more for Christopher Buckley’s benefit than the reader’s. Fair enough: CB is forthright about that. His reader gets a book that’s enjoyable in its own right and gives a sense of WFB and Pat Buckley as human beings rather than right-wing statuary. I can’t see cause for complain in that. Christopher is clearly devoted to both of his parents, who just as clearly were sometimes difficult to get along with. I expect, if anything, CB has erred on the side of filial piety. If Losing Mum and Pup is controversial, I can only imagine Sam Tanenhaus’s forthcoming WFB biography will cause apoplexy. What the movement types [5] demand is unvarnished hagiography. Good for Christopher Buckley that he refused to give it to ’em.

(P.S.: For an antidote to Klinghoffer, see John Coyne’s appreciative Washington Times review [6].)