Saturday, May 09, 2009
An Evening with Christopher Buckley
From my younger years, I have vivid recollections of William F. Buckley, Jr., mostly from his role as host of PBS' "Firing Line." I don't know how often my parents watched the show, but I have strong memories of Buckley, reclining in his chair, notes on his knee, speaking with his inimitable accent about important news of the day. As I got older and my political beliefs were being developed, I discovered just how important Buckley had been to generations of conservatives in this country as the father of the movement.
The next generation of the family, son Christopher, wasn't as well known to me. I had heard of his many humorous novels - I suppose the most famous being Thank You for Smoking - but hadn't actually read any of them, and until recently hadn't read any of his columns (which are carried on the website The Daily Beast; I highly recommend them). I also recalled that he had incurred the wrath of the hard-right conservatives when he broke with family tradition and endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 election. So when I saw that was appearing at Politics and Prose last night to discuss his latest book, Losing Mum and Pup, I took advantage of the opportunity and attended to learn a bit more about him.
As with my previous visits to the store, I opted to arrive early and am glad I did - the place was absolutely packed. I was fortunate to get a good seat, and the friend who was joining me managed to arrive just two or three minutes before I would have been required to relinquish the seat I was holding for him. What was most surprising to me was that contrary to what I was expecting in terms of the age of the crowd, a large majority of those in attendance were in their 70s - seemingly more from WFB's generation than that of his son, but was certainly pleased that his writing holds appeal to such a large segment of folks. One lady seated near me asked if I was familiar with his work, and then proceded to give one of the best layperson's explanations of his writing that I'll ever get - "He takes people from Washington that you'll probably recognize and puts them in situations that aren't really absurd - but then drags them out to as absurd an end as he possibly can."
This was Buckley's thirteenth appearance at Politics and Prose, and he celebrated this event by bringing his son and daughter with him - both of whom really seemed to enjoy being there with him (I can't say all kids their age would have enjoyed doing something like this on a gorgeous Friday spring night in Washington). He was an extremely witty and charming gentleman and reminded me of a cool college professor that takes the class out for beers at the end of the semester. The audience was quite taken with him and hung on his every word.
He began by reading a chapter of his newest book, which covers the year of his life between the death of his mother and the death of his father (the New York Times recently published a great review, which can be read here). It was very poignant but full of humor - made all the more real by the emotion he put into reading it - and we were all obviously on a fine line between laughter and tears. At the conclusion of his reading, he then took several questions from the audience - and it was almost painful listening at some of the insane queries being posed: one gentleman was intent on hearing every opinion Buckley had about the feud between his father and Gore Vidal resulting from the famous incident at the 1968 Democrat convention (a clip of which can be viewed here), which quickly got old; one lady, who had also lost her parents, went into a long explanation of how she had learned things about them as she was going through their papers and how she was so moved by Buckley's experience that she literally "curled up into a fetal position around the book" (he ended his response to her by thanking her for curling up with his book, "however you did it"); another gentleman tried to be very respectful as he asked Buckley if he thought his father's mind had become sclerotic towards the end of his life (which elicited an audible groan from the audience). Despite the inane quality of most of the questions, he handled each of them very gracefully.
Then came the stampede for the signing line, which one gentleman beat by starting to walk towards Buckley during the answer to his last question, just to ensure that he was at the table immediately. My friend and I found a spot towards the end and had a nice visit as the line moved - surprisingly quickly, in fact, as it seemed most of the crowd left after he finished with the question-and-answer session. He took time to chat with everyone and pose for photos for those who asked, and I had an opportunity to tell him how much I had enjoyed reading his Daily Beast columns and was looking forward to his books.
All in all, it was a great evening - and seeing as how Buckley and his family live here in the Washington area, I'm hoping to have more opportunities in the future to hear him speak.