Bill Buckley hits his stride with a 35th book, or is it the 36th?

September 10, 1995|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

The fact that William F. Buckley Jr. has come out with another book and that within weeks there will be still another is not news. His first, "God and Man at Yale," written as an undergraduate and published in 1951, was news. I am just old enough to have heard it vilified from an upturned milk-bottle crate in New York's Union Square -- and rapturously defended by hecklers- in the mid-1950s.

His newest volume is either his 35th or 36th. He has edited five other major books, and written otherwise fluently: syndicated newspaper columns, most of the time thrice weekly; ceaseless articles for National Review, of which he is founder and patriarch; work in other magazines. I have acquaintances who appear to have spent their lives doing very little else but reading Bill Buckley's words.

All the while, he has defined and dominated "Firing Line," which I believe is the longest-running interview show on television and which indisputably has wielded more energy and influence in that genre than all its followers and imitators combined.

And, lest Mr. Buckley be misperceived as having been distracted by those scrivenings and sermonizings and catalyzings, he is a serving citizen as well. He has apparently enjoyed the unrelenting elevation by the American academic, political and journalistic liberal Establishment to a position somewhere between Antichrist on Earth and the last jester from the court of George III. But meanwhile he has garnered infinite doctorates and other such honors, paying for virtually every one with at least one original and learned lecture.

Career midpoint

On Nov. 24, he will celebrate his 70th birthday. I hesitate always to write about friends or their work. But I beg your indulgence on this occasion, which I take to be the midpoint in the career of a treasured friend.

His newest books are "Brothers No More" ( Doubleday. 294 pages. $23.95) and "The Blackford Oakes Reader: Ten Characters from Ten Best Sellers" (Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel. 270 pages. $18.95).

Putting last things first, "Brothers No More" is a moral thriller, a story of human frailty, testing, redemption of the spirit. Overall, it presents a rather grim view of the human condition, while proffering the ecstatic essence of moral heroism. It starts off with very considerable bang and rollicks along throughout, qualifying as a page turner, with little or no distraction. Mostly muscle, lean meat.

The Oakes compilation (is a compendium a real book? Number 36 or not?) marks the fact that Mr. Buckley has written 10 novels centered on Blackwood Oakes, an infinitely urbane, cosmopolitan and morally driven spook. He began writing the series 20 years ago, at age 50.

In the introduction to the Oakes compilation, he makes a point that applies, in a broad sense, to "Brothers" as well: "The educational objective in the novels has been to make the point . . . that counterintelligence and espionage, conducted under Western auspices, weren't exercises in conventional political geometry. They were -- and are -- a moral art."

Public acts as moral art: There Bill Buckley stands; he can do no other. So it is that his fiction, as the rest of his work, all finally is one seamless morality tale.

How can that be? How, indeed, can Bill Buckley be?

The pace and accomplishments, I believe, depend on the truth that he works completely outward. His consciousness is ceaselessly alive and aware and awake, in his work as in his life. And it is ceaselessly outward looking, not introspective. In the best of the Oakes books, "Stained Glass," he put these words in the mouth of a wise man: "I believe in the life of the mind, and in human fancy, and in the everlasting struggle against vulgarity."

Stray metaphysics

Bill Buckley is a True Believer, redeemed by his certain sureness that the struggle is never won, but must never be lost or abandoned. That sureness is unforgiving of doubt or conjecture. Thus insulated from stray metaphysics, from introspective rumination, from the darknesses that illuminate doubt, he gambols along, writing, riding an indefatigable winged horse.

That, I suppose, is why his fiction does not raise the questions from which grow much or most high literature. You know those puzzlers. A friend who has nothing to do with the subject at hand once instructed me: "All major European novels ask one central question: 'Who Am I?' and all American novels ask an entirely different question: 'Am I?' That is the difference between Europe and America."

I believe Bill Buckley, certified cosmopolite, is as sure of the answers to both questions as anyone I have ever known. They do not haunt him, or his novels.

But he can be haunted. I just reread his "Cruising Speed," first published in 1971. I was awed again by the energy, of course. That is what the book is all about, a relentless journal of a single week in Bill Buckley's life then. But the power of it is confidence, a rare, strange sense of being at peace with his world.

Near the end of that book, he wonders about today: "What are my reserves? How will I satisfy them, who listen to me today, tomorrow? Hell, how will I satisfy myself tomorrow, satisfying myself so imperfectly, which is not to say insufficiently, today; at cruising speed?"

My vote goes to raising a glass on Nov. 24 to Lot's Wife and the lesson she left. And resolving to go on, never looking back, to

the next 35 or so. Books and years.

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