A Torch Kept Lit by William F. Buckley, Jr. (2016, Crown)
Buckley has been gone for years, but he wrote extensively before he passed. Among his writings were eulogies and obituaries; because of his travels and his involvement in American politics, he had the opportunity for close dealings with a broad array of the famous and influential.
When someone with whom he had personal involvement died, Buckley was often moved to write an essay about them. This book compiles many of those compositions, arranging them in sections according to the form of their association with him.
It’s notable in two ways. First, in that Buckley consistently approached people in a way which seems anathema to most pundits today. He would recognize the praiseworthy in a person while simultaneously refusing to ignore their failings. This was done through the lens of his philosophy, of course, but his refusal to ignore the negative attributes of his friends or the positive attributes of his adversaries results in articles which feel fundamentally honest to all involved – subject, author and reader.
Second, in Buckley’s phrasing. Buckley was a wordsmith who displayed both a fondness for the English language and an aptitude for its usage. He wrote as he spoke, and he spoke with a vocabulary far exceeding that of his average reader. Buckley was no fool and undoubtedly recognized this fact. In his work, however, Buckley neither talked down to his audience nor did he talk above them. He approached his audience with the expectation that they would be able to follow him, a measure of respect which reflected positively upon the man.
A compilation of eulogies from an associate to the famous is inherently interesting. From Buckley’s pen, it’s a delight.
Saving the Queen by William F. Buckley, Jr. (1976, Doubleday)
As much as I can praise Buckley’s nonfiction writing, he falters a bit in this, the first of his Blackford Oakes thrillers.
One one hand, it’s pleasant to read spy novels with some density to their prose. As noted above, Buckley treated his readers as his lexiconic equals; the result is a book with an unusual refinement of detail.
On the other hand, some discussions are jarringly unrealistic, in that everyone seems to share Oakes’ vocabulary. It’s an example of a flaw I first encountered in a Steve Allen novel wherein every person encountered, no matter their experiences or current station in life, was equally as quick-witted as Steve Allen. It signals a failure on the part of the writer to differentiate between characters. Buckley seems to have a much better grasp on the issue than Allen did, and most conversations flow naturally, but some thrust the reader out of the story.
The other flaw is in pacing. A technique used by writers to manipulate the reader is to simplify the writing during action scenes, allowing the reader to naturally quicken the speed of their reading and add a perception of realism to the action. Buckley eschews such tricks, maintaining the technique of a classic, turn-of-the-century novel for a modern thriller. It’s an interesting choice and one of which I’m not especially fond.
Those minor quibbles aside, it’s a solid book and the introduction of what would become an eleven-novel series that only grew better over time.