It’s time for a warning to writers of my generation — “Think veeeery carefully before you start that ‘my-famous-but difficult-parents-are-dead’ book. The field is getting crowded.”
The field is not actually crowded, yet, but as I read Losing Mum and Pup I had that feeling of strained tolerance/enjoyment, as if to say, “I’m OK with this for now, but it had better stop soon.” And I’ve only read two of these, Francine du Plessix Gray’s Them (possibly the best book title ever) preceding Chris Buckley’s.
You have to tread very, very carefully on this territory. You absolutely must not whine (Buckley avoids this) but at the same time, we readers are looking for a little acknowledgment of just how monstrous the parents were. I mean, otherwise, why are we reading? I guess it’s to Buckley’s credit that to this day he believes his father was a great man, but by many standards, William F. Buckley comes up pretty short in the parenting department. The anecdote about walking out on Chris’s Yale graduation (he got bored) being a case in point.
On the other hand. Buckley son’s point is that both of his parents were larger than life, and there are plenty of stories to support this claim. The one I really love involves a treasure hunt staged on Long Island Sound in which some heirloom silver and jewelry were buried, and lost to the intervention of a hurricane. There’s immense generosity and flair to this side of the WFB fatherhood. The book is extremely funny in places though I did regret that most of the good anecdotes had already appeared in the Vanity Fair excerpt. I don’t seem to be able to learn that particular lesson: just because I liked the excerpt doesn’t mean the book will hold up.
It felt a little — thin. Buckley writes fluently and cleverly. It goes down a treat. Nice family photos. WFB’s achievements covered with appropriate filial respect. Charming humor about the weirdness and indignity of the death trade. The Buckley parents died in the same year so Chris ended up as a repeat customer at the local funeral home, a fact he found more amusing than they did. But I did wonder, as I read, why he had written the book. Because he’s a writer, I assumed. Because that’s what writers do. Because your parents’ death is earth-shaking to you. Because writing helps you process the world.
Not until the end did Buckley himself provide the key and I must say, I forgave him everything. He realized that writing this memoir about his parents’ lives and deaths permitted him to spend more time with them. Which I found honestly touching.
I’m done, though. As baby boomers we’ve seen every aspect of our lives examined in the media and colluded in the examination. Enough, enough! We are all going to be orphans, and soon! That doesn’t mean it’s universally interesting.