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Monday, July 11, 2016

Retirement



I have recently read two books by well-known authors about retirement. They are The Great Leader by Jim Harrison and Condominium by John D. McDonald. Harrison is most famous for Legends of the Fall, which was made into a Brad Pitt movie, and which I have not seen yet. Nor have I read anything else by Harrison, although I have been well aware of his reputation for some time. I guess there was something about Harrison that has scared me, even as I filtered the praise of his work through my own filter for books I eventually plan to read. I'll come back to Harrison, because I am still trying to figure out what I think about his novel.

McDonald is easier to discuss. McDonald is rightly famous for his Travis McGee mystery series of books. Travis McGee was the guy that soon-to-be Florida transplants imagined themselves as. McGee lived on a low rent, well maintained 52-foot houseboat called the Busted Flush, (won in a poker game) , lived high by his wits, and was a speaker of complete sentences with a mid-century American competence, a type that we are likely never to see again. He was a retired salvage consultant, occasionally salvaging stolen wealth from bad guys for a piece of the take.

McDonald's novel Condominium was written in the late 70's so most of the residents are from the World War II generation, and have had some success in life, but are still filled with angst about the threat of losing all their investments: Most of their wealth is in their condominium. Condominium life in Florida in the 70s, was a bizarre scene, where the newly minted geezers were stored in giant concrete chests of drawers, with little balconies, that (in the good one's) overlooked the water. The novel is set on the West Coast, near a city like Tampa, called Fiddler Key. It could be St. Pete Beach, a place I know because my parents spent their 'mid-retirement' years there.

The Retirement Experience for my parents has to be seen as a success, at least now, ten years after their deaths which occurred nearly within the same year. They worked hard, saved their money and saw their NJ home appreciate to the point that they were able to sell it and buy a beautiful two bedroom bungalow with a perfect sawgrass lawn and an orange tree. Or maybe it was mango. That part of their retirement lasted about ten years. Mom sailed, Dad played golf and drank. They had parties, joined the Yacht club, gossiped, flirted with the other 60 somethings, and traveled in the State Rooms on cargo ships, where my Dad could shoot the breeze with his former shipmates, and Mom could be the belle of the boat. They went ashore into exotic, now too dangerous ports, and had some real adventures.

Then, in their early seventies, they started to slow down. It became too much to take care of the orange, (or mango) tree and the lawn, so they moved into a condominium on an inlet on the Tampa Bay. This was around the time McDonald wrote Condominium, so you see I have a bit of insight into the setting.

The story is set around the shoddy construction and shady business practices of the phony corporations that 'owned” the Condos, (the real owner was a shaky bank). The tragedies of falling condo resale prices are juxtaposed against a coming Hurricane. The people are so familiar and yet, so different than their children, (me), who are retiring today that it struck me as worth examining. McDonald catches people in the act of getting old. Some are getting sick, and some are finally beginning to live when it is almost too late. Sex is tacky, usually in the afternoon when the betrayed spouse is taking a nap, and dark conspiracies are hatched over poolside card games, plotting the overthrow of condo board members who proposed new rules that are denounced as stupid if not communistic. Antisemitism is rampant, and blacks are nearly non-existent except as cleaning crews. The maintenance superintendent is feared by all, as he has to power to decide when and how much repair to the units gets done. When I would make my Christmas pilgrimages to visit, it was always a trip down the rabbit hole. The old rules of the family were void because Mom and Dad were now part of a new community, a cult almost, where the greatest sin imaginable was to leave your wet bathing suit hanging over the balcony. Many had grown up in tenements during the 30s and the sight of clothes drying on the fire escape was a terrible memory, one that brought back the poverty of their Depression Era upbringing. You don't fuck with the Condo Board.

"No flip-flops in the clubhouse." "Nixon got a raw deal." "Six-month CDs (certificates of deposit) pay 12-15%." "You can set your watch to the 4 PM afternoon thunderstorm." "Somebody's been drinking my scotch!"

I secretly prayed for a hurricane during my summer visits.

McDonald's Condominium was made into a TV movie with lots of B-actors. McDonald was a brilliant man, whose analysis of the financial structure of condominium construction and the engineering of building them was worth the read for me. But like the Condos themselves, he had too many characters in this novel. The part that detracted the read for me was the ordinary lives he illustrated - they were too close to real life, an affluent version of Hobbes' dictum that life is nasty, brutish and short. It takes a special writer to make ordinary interesting, and McDonald misses it with this book. Unless you are looking for some old-people-in-the-seventies nostalgia, I would not recommend this novel – any of McDonald's Travis McGee books are a better read, even if the fiction is more fictitious.

So – lesson learned, don't move to a Florida Condo to retire. Check.

Jim Harrison also writes about retirement in The Great Leader. Harrison a Charles Bukowski-like figure, who seemed to do his writing while drunk, and who recently died, in his late 70s. The Great Leader is a cult leader whose followers are pre-pubescent girls who he initiates into the cult by having sex with them. Sunderson is a recently retired cop using his new free time to bring him down. But on nearly every page, Sunderson is mooning over the bent-over tushes of every woman who turns her back to him. He is a basket case, divorced of course, whose lonely predicament is his own fault on every account, and he knows it better than anyone.

There is very little plot, no transition, no continuity in The Great Leader. But of course, I have yet to discern any of that in 'real life' either. You get the feeling that Harrison might have actually written those transition parts, or at least thought about them, but didn't keep because it bores him, so he just jumps to the good parts. He gets beat up, has drunken, consensual sex with a lesbian who is associated with the Great Leader, and muses about the life he has led and the books he has read, and hunting, dogs, and the land. His land, like his people, is the land that others find ugly, trashed, clear-cut, and mined over, but he is in love with it anyway. He finds beauty in the low end of ordinary.


He is chasing a guy who is much the same as he is, only worse because the Great Leader is without remorse. Sunderson's life is nothing but remorse, and you feel that it is the lack of remorse that is his great white whale. His regret in part consists of his dreams of three naked women in his bed, even as he describes with frightening accuracy the mechanics of his own sexual decline. His dreams bring him a kind of comfort because they bring the only justice he knows to exist. He is a cop after all.


So what did these two books tell me about retirement, a state into which I have recently entered?

They teach me retirement is just like the rest of life, I am on my own, with no map, only a definite destination.











Sunday, June 5, 2016

All She Ever Wanted by T.L Cooper

All She Ever Wanted

By T.L. Cooper


All She Ever Wanted



I like fiction with a plot that moves quickly, spiky dialogue, humor, characters who don't take themselves too seriously.  I really like when they make me laugh a bit, whether it is self-depreciating, or even a bit cruel. All She Ever Wanted (ASEW) is not on my usual literary menu. For me, ASEW was almost a visit to a bizarro Shang-Gri-La world, where everyone speaks earnestly about mundane things, Southern things, in serious fully formed sentences from which no satirical irony can be detected in the least.


It is not about the deep South, but the Border South, you can tell because the Border South is - well on the border - not the heart of Faulkner's darkness, but Kentucky Horse Country.  It is page after page of descriptions of the paint on the walls, the color of the carpets, the plait on the dresses, the heels on the shoes. But unpleasantries between people are avoided like moldy leftovers. The novel was outside my usual reading comfort zone, but ultimately, and oddly, if I may say, it was satisfying. It is without question the most blatant work of 'women's fiction' I have ever read. I needed to read it. I think it gave me insight into the 'inner workings' of the women I have known and continue to know. Observing my reaction to it was a therapeutic exercise. It gave me insight into my own world view, of its blindspots, preconceptions, and prejudices.

 

All She Ever Wanted is a slow moving, Southern story about a self-involved, tightly wrapped, spoiled woman, who achieves worldly success at the price of – well - everything that is important in life, such as love and fun. Victoria Caldwell is the product of upper class, horsey, up-tight family, where appearances really count, and where the exterior social trappings - clothes, furniture, hairstyles, - are everything. The novel begins with Victoria musing about her past and we are taken back to her college years. She is date-raped by a frat boy, an event which casts a long shadow on her future romantic life. Then to make it much worse, she gets no support from her sorority sisters, and so that sours her trust in women as well. College would have been dismal but for her only friend, a black man her age, Daryn, who comes from a prosperous, functional southern family.

 

Daryn is demonstrably not gay, but his relationship with Victoria has all the outward markings of a stereotypical straight woman - gay man friendship. They never get together in bed, even though Victoria's dreams all point to that being what she really wants; but because of her entrenched southern womanhood 'thing', she can never have it. That longing is something Victoria would deny until she was blue in the face, but the evidence - her soapy bathtub daydreaming, and her constant obsessive need to be near Daryn indicates otherwise.

 

Tragic things happen, and Victoria never really breaks through. She tries to escape from her self-imposed trap that requires propriety in all things, and to truly live, but it doesn't happen - not until the very very end, which is presented as a final breakout for her but - as a reader, I have my doubts she really makes it. Throughout the 532 pages, she returns to her 'bread and butter' ways of coping –solitude, hot bubble baths, and long scenes played out in her head that always seem to justify her cold outwardness, which pushes away everyone and allows her to deny her own desires. My anger at Victoria eventually turned to pity.

 

It is a book about the modern South. There is a touch of Scarlette O'Hara in Victoria. She gets possession of her great-great grandmother's diaries which detail the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction and we read how her slave and Plantation owning family dealt with that transformation – and we see that self-pity and self-involvement is a long standing family trait.

 

I have half-southern roots myself and like Chis Rock describing why OJ murdered Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman,  “I don't condone it – but I understand it.” By that I mean when reading about how Southerners are trapped by their own history and their devotion to backward, deluded and feudal romantic ideals and patterns of behavior, I understand it even if I reject being burdened with it. I have sat in my maternal grandmother's kitchen and eaten corn bread, home-made jam, honey-combed honey, and fresh eggs, and grits, and fatty fried ham and listened to the lyrical, half-true memories of my North Carolina kin and I felt the pull of the family, of the land and - well kinship - and depending on the day, it is as strongly imprinted on me as my New Jersey 'fooget-about-it' side. I do understand Victoria's cold refusal to surrender to her own humanity, and her need to 'measure up' to tradition and expectations that are unrealistic and soul destroying. But I don't condone it.

 

I was angry at Victoria through most of the whole read - but that doesn't mean I disliked the book. A good book makes you grow and understand things you didn't understand before. ASEW taught me some things or rather reflected back at me parts of humanity I tend to ignore otherwise.

 

The book is well crafted technically. Cooper is a fine sentence and paragraph honer. For the reader – it should have been more viciously and brutally edited. But then it wouldn't have been the flowery, endless search for a perfection that can never be found.


Friday, April 29, 2016

LeCarre's "The Night Manager" and the Risks of Translating Literature to the Screen

Just saw the first episode of “The Night Manager” with Hugh Laurie and Tom Huddleston. I only finished re-reading the novel last weekend and it affected me much differently than the first time I read it, about fifteen years ago.

The story, which on screen is updated to the present, was originally set in the 90s when the book was written and published. It is about a wealthy, somewhat famous, and extremely well connected Brit, Richard Roper, played by Hugh Laurie. Think of Roper as a monstrously evil Sir Richard Branson. The rich and famous clamor to be part of his life, which appears to be a continuous traveling yacht and skiing party. He has a rotating posse, the core of which consists of well-born Sir Sandy Langborne, a philandering sot, and his beautiful but boring wife. There is also Lance Corkoran, Roper's gay factotum, who speaks all the languages required, and handles the money, as well as two or three armed guards and Roper's girlfriend Jed. 


The protagonist of the story is Jonathan Pine, a former soldier, hiding out inside his own head from the guilt of a horrible wartime atrocity. He is the night manager, standing at the desk in the five-star hotel between 10 PM. and 6 AM. handling late arrivals, emergency wire transfers, and the comforts of insomniac guests.  He also handles the occasional body that turns up in luxury suites in the wee hours.

Re-Reading a book is always an adventure in self-discovery. The novel's stucture, (which I didn't see the first time I read it) is in large part a series of short scenes, mostly glimpses into the mind of Pine, whose anger, guilt and love burn inversely to the calm exterior he exposes to the outside world. It sometimes reads almost like Nietzsche's later works – short parable-like passages exploding with meaning and angst. “The Night Manager” is a work of intense feeling for the author. He hates the arms trade and its political superstructure, and is livid at the hyper-hypocritical media world, that in part feeds off the profits of the arm's industry, while bemoaning with crocodile tears the deadly little wars that always are raging somewhere. LeCarre shows how we all benefit to a degree from the fat of the profits of misery, whether from our 401-K returns or the bread and circus media entertainment provided us round-clock. He rages on and is, frankly sometimes hard to read, because – I am used to bread-and-circus-easy-to-read crap like anybody else. The question – is the TV mini-series part of that monstrous machine that feeds off of the world's misery? I don't know, someone else has to take up that question.

For those readers who reflexively hate the screen remake of novels, I think  (in this particular case) the depiction of the man-in-full during the 1990s is a different kind of animal than that of  the generation of 2016. One nod to the changed generational climate is that Burr, Pine's MI-6 handler, is now a woman. Burr is played by Olivia Coleman who is such a good actor in the role, that I don't care at all about that. The big kahuna, the major jarring note for me, is the 'Book-Roper' was probably born in the 30s. He remembered the privations of the war, and had deep understanding and acceptance of his own generation's kowtow to British privilege. And of course, Book-Roper never experienced the Tony Blair era. He is old school, in a way modern Brits can't convincingly pull off anymore without a double douse of irony added for the politically 'sensitive' to swallow. The TV-Roper is of course attuned to the modern world, (his opening TV interview bemoaning poverty shows that). He understands the different social winds in a way that would have confused and probably infuriated Book-Roper. The novel’s Cockoran was also product of the bygone era. Life in the closet left a bad mark on him. In the book, he is a powerful and disturbing presence, that after one episode seems diminished on screen. We will see, perhaps he comes alive in later episodes.

LeCarre, was about my age now, (mid-sixties) when he wrote The Night Manager. Since I have been reading LeCarre most of my adult life, I am intensely interested in how time and age affect his narrative outlook. Shorter and more intense passages are typical in older writers I think, I think our brain gets 'hotter' as we age, and we can't take the heat for long stretches as when we were younger. But that style wasn't apparent in LeCarre's recent “A Most Wanted Man”, so... LeCarre is a great writer, whose style has changed again and again over his career, I'll leave it there.

Books and movies can't be compared, I keep telling myself that anyway, even though every time they film a story that I have read and liked, I invariably curl up with the popcorn in anticipation to see what the scenes of the book “really” look like. Most of the time I am disappointed, or even angry at what the Hollywood Philistines do to literature I like and for which I have already have built a theater set in my head.


Hugh Laurie, who played the twit in various roles in the British comedy “BlackAdder”, and “House” the brilliant and arrogant doctor who always solved intractable medical mysteries in 50 minutes, doesn't seem addled enough to be Roper.  It is hard to imagine who could do it on today's scene because the role of Roper requires a devil-may-care upper-class elan combined with a cruel disdain for the desperately poor Third World that is continually blowing itself up with Roper's wares. 


Huddleston is the up and coming British movie star.  His Loki was the only interesting character in the Thor movies. Both he and Laurie in real life had neo-Victorian upbringings, are accomplished, athletic and smart. Good casting if you are looking to sell it to a wide audience.

In the book, Pine never slept with the girl from Devon - at least didn't have sex with her. And why does Corkrane immediately look askance at Pine in the TV show, rather than let it the suspicion slowly develop? These and other minor changes - they have fewer site-locations than the book - are meant to move the story along and make it cheaper to make - both necessary features of the book-to-movie business.  But the motivations of Pine and Corkrane seems to less convincing than in the book. Is it jealousy, or unrequited sexual attraction or does Corkrane have a reason to hate Pine other than the coincidence of him being there and threatening his place as Roper's Number Two.  


Pine seems more like James Bond and less like a tortured introvert that I think LeCarre originally meant him to be. I  feel that the mood of the book, which was dark on many levels has been juiced up and sexed up.  I saw Pine as something like Tom Courtney in "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" and Corkrane as a tortured Somerset Maugham character, with a vicious cruel streak. The movie doesn't bring that feeling for me.

Big changes in a movie based on a book are OK if it stays true to some artistic feeling. For example, Shakespeare has been played in many different periods and social venues. Ian Mckellan's version of Richard 3 set in a 20th-century Fascist setting was great. But if you seem to be making decisions to appease rather than confront the audience, and if you violate the unity of story, to make obvious connections for the modern distracted viewer it can lead to disappointment for the purist who has a strong opinion of the original work. 

JLC is in his eighties now and is involved with the BBC project.  I support him making money, even if it dilutes his art.  I am sure he was pressured by all the studio flacks to make the story and characters more acceptable to today's audience. But no matter.  His books are there and speak eloquently enough, and for James Bond type entertainment the BBC Night Manager is OK, for me at least.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Review of The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron

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Thubron is the greatest travel writer alive. Every sentence he writes seems to be constructed to carry profound meaning and beauty beyond the basic narrative of his story. From the western edges of China, through the sites of the once great cities of Central Asia, he takes us on a sand-encrusted, foot-swelling tour of an area now almost unknown to western observers. His greatest gift, among many, is the penetrating nature of the questions he asks. He comes to his trip prepared with an amazingly deep knowledge of the history of the area, along with strong Russian and Chinese language skills. He travels alone and he seeks the most desolate, forgotten locations possible, spots that were once witness to the most amazing events of history. His encounters with the people of the region are studies of character, society, and politics, as well as heartfelt attempts to understand the realities, both external and internal, of people he meets, whose entire life is conscribed b the harsh environment he is passing through.


His visit to the fabled cities that were once ruled by the descendants of Alexander the Great's garrisons, where he sees the traces of that past in the sand under his feet and in the faces of the people who live there, give you a feeling similar to that of entering a great medieval cathedral. His description of the City of Merv, now an ugly post-Soviet way station, but once possibly the most populous city in the world, is something I read three times to take it all in. All around are the ghosts of the millions of people killed by the Mongols in the 13th Century and the thousands killed by the Russians in the 19th.

Thubron is probably the last of the disciplined, British rear guard of the Great Game, an eclectic, autodidact who somehow can keep his head while totally exposed, unsupported in a place few of us would dare to go.


Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Review of the Emperor's General, by James Webb

 The Emperor's General, published in 1999 by Sen. Jim Webb is a great novel.  More on that, but first a few words about the Senator.

Jim Webb was on the podium, debating for the Democratic nomination for President a couple month's ago with Hillary, Bernie and the other guy.  I was hoping that all of the aspects of his amazing biography would override his obvious reluctance to submit himself to the US presidential process.  He grew up in a military family, went to the Navel Academy and lost a disputed boxing decision to a much bigger Ollie North for his class championship.  Then he went to Vietnam as a Marine officer, and won a Silver Star, and other medals, including two purple hearts. He got a Law degree from Georgetown, was Reagan's Secretary of the Navy, was an award winning journalist, wrote highly praised novels, turned Democrat and beat the once Republican Presidential hopeful George Allen for the Virginia Senate.   

There is even more, look him up.  I imagined him as the perfect populist candidate.  He didn't need to copy Bernie's policy direction of course, but he did need to focus on his 'Democratic' credentials, which if you look at his voting record in the Senate are real.  But, we are in a weird political times, and perhaps that trumps accomplishment and character. The last thing he said on the podium, before dropping out of the race was to imply how he had personally killed a Vietcong soldier in battle.  That wasn't going to sway Hillary and Bernie's voters, who should have been his target audience.  

But it highlights his other problem which is his consistent history of flipping off the powerful.  One example – when he was in the Senate, President Bush Jr. asked him about his son, who was serving in Iraq.  Webb told Bush in a very pointed way that that was between him and his son.  

All of that, all of his many accomplishments, pale in comparison to his talent to tell a story.  The Emperor's General is the best novel I have read in years.  On the surface, it is a history novel about Gen MacArthur and the last couple years of WW2 and six months into the occupation of Japan.  It deals primarily with one of the almost unknown chapters of the war, the trial, conviction and execution of Japanese General Yamanshita for war crimes in the Philippines.   It is told through the eyes of a young American Army Captain, Jay Marsh, who through a series of plausible and well crafted incidents, become a fly on the wall of MacArthur's deliberations and eventually becomes a player in the high level diplomatic game between MacArthur and the Japanese Emperor.

Marsh narrates and his story over-shadows the 'big story' without skipping any of the subtle details of MacArthur's maneuvers.  It is great history, explaining the larger significance of the Japanese occupation, while putting you on the ground, coming ashore with MacArthur as he validates his “I shall return” promise to the Philippines, as well as in Yokohama and Tokyo after the surrender.  The discriptions and the context that Webb presents will astonish you and give you a feel for the entire panorama of the time and place.   

But that is not why the Emperor's General is a truly great book.  Marsh is forced to leave the arms of a beautiful, trusting woman to enter into the highest levels of the Japanese Geisha world.  He loves  both women. This powerful and tender love story is  understated and tactile and seems so true. Jay is forced into unfaithfulness, by his duty,  an unfaithfulness most men would consider the highlight of their romantic life. Jay accepts the assignment, in fact makes the most of his sexual opportunity, all the while knowing it was destroying his one hope for happiness.  

It is unapologetically a man's story. Men don't get  many novels that explain the torments of the heart, particularly in a way that weaves it into the thrill of world-shaking ambition.   Webb – a smart, tough guy, who in real life told a feckless President to kiss off – will break your heart with this novel.    The historical gossip, the depiction of the real human side of near-mythical personalities – (like Emperor Hirohito) – all of that is delicious reading, but it all stands down in the presence of a great and painful love story.

Webb  is a great writer, and ultimately that is a higher calling than politics

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Review of WF Buckley's Saving the Queen

I owe a debt of gratitude to William F. Buckley. He ranks high among the people who have influenced my intellectual development such as it is. Of course, this debt I owe, is mostly due to his show “Firing Line” which I started watching as an adolescent. <= There. That previous sentence. "Of course this..", notice the smug, unconsciously snobbish attitude. (what a smart boy I must have been to watch Firing Line!) Buckley brought that attitude to all of his work, both on camera and on the printed page, and perhaps it affected me, probably more deeply than I know.

For example, the introductory music to Firing Line, Bach's Brandenburg Concerto #2, which repeated on each weekly session, was my first introduction to classical music. I don't think he influenced my politics all that much, although perhaps he gave me some tools with which to think about it. But he probably did make me a snob. Hearing the music week after week, allowed me to really think about other works of music in the same way. And I started holding a pencil up to my face when I talked to people too. And all that was just from the show's introduction, before anyone said anything.


There was an adolescent quality to Buckley, (WFB) a giddy delight in gently tormenting people with his wit that appealed to teenage boys such as myself. His Bradford Oakes, novels, adventures of a young WFB doppelganger recruited into the CIA from Yale in the early 50s, were really almost Hardy Boy adventures. Saving the Queen, which has an outrageous premise as its hook, (and I won't tell you what it is and don't Google it – save it if you are going to read it.) brings back that delight he seemed to have in reviling in the travails of youth.


Saving the Queen is the introduction of Bradford Oakes, the first of ten novels about the war hero and son of Charles Lindbergh's very best friend. Oakes is a tongue in cheek version of WFB himself. The fictional Oakes, a former student at an exclusive English school for boys, had a profligate mother who was divorced from his rich father, an aviation executive and dare devil pilot.


In the story, Oakes praises the real Buckley, notable WFB's first published work “God and Man at Yale”. It is an interesting attempt to break the fourth wall, bringing reality into the fiction, but it also displays why Buckley just wasn't cut out to be more than a mildly entertaining fiction writer: he is clearly winking at his audience, going for the cheap laugh. But that in itself makes his fiction bearable because his stories seem to have to no other self-awareness within themselves. Oakes never has any doubt about his place in the upper-class world he was born into. He doesn't have any friends except for, as his mother calls them, PLUs, People Like Us. He can't escape his need for his characters to engage in right-wing polemics, justifying McCarthyism and political paranoia of the 1950s. The story - someone close to the young Queen of England, (the fictional Caroline, a cousin of the recently deceased Elizabeth II) is feeding the Soviets technical information about the Hydrogen Bomb. The young Queen is bright and unhappy in her role as a symbolic ruler of Britannia, and takes it out on the Prime Minister by questioning him incessantly about the real state of Britain’s defenses, (How many Nuclear Weapons do we have? What is their mega-tonnage?) Oakes is inserted into London's society by the CIA and becomes acquainted with her Majesty and somewhat woodenly solves the problem. I'll leave you to decide what I mean by woodenly.


Buckley is perhaps trying to write a contrary-mirror satire of John LeCarre spy novels, a writer to whom he has elsewhere shown his disdain. Buckley didn't like the moral ambivalence in The Spy who Came in From the Cold or Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy. The West was 100% right to do anything to protect ourselves against Soviet dominion. Since his hero never has any moral doubts, his fiction doesn't really breath.

Buckley is no prig. His alter ego hero Oakes gets laid and drunk with regularity. He has a proper girl back home who he secretly sleeps with, and his prostitutes, (mostly French of course) are happy-go-lucky girls who enjoy their work and live under the dominion of a wise and caring madam. There is no darkness in their lives, at least as far as Oakes is concerned.


In the end, the novel is dated and silly, wrapped up too neatly to take seriously. The premise is brilliant, but in my opinion, he flubs it.


I walked next to William F. Buckley in an airport once, and we chatted, and he was very friendly and engaging. It was in the late 70s and I had very long hair, but I told him I loved Firing Line and always read his columns. He laughed and told me, looking at my hair and sensing my leftwardness I suppose, that I wasn't reading them with the correct attitude.

If you read a summary of his ideas today they are shockingly out of synch with even modern conservative principles. He supported white supremacy and was very homophobic. But then he came out for the legalization of marijuna in 1965, and strongly condemned Bush the Dumber's war in Iraq in his last years. And he argued fairly and entertainingly and explored ideas rather than just positions, and people who disagreed with him had a full opportunity to prevail if they could. And sometimes, when watching him, I think fair-minded people would agree they did prevail and he accepted it. Think about FOX News today. They could learn a lot re-watching old Firing Line shows.


But Saving the Queen is a curiosity for those like myself who were drawn into Buckley's world and want to relive it a little and soak up Buckley's elegant pomposity. But it is not great fiction.