Saturday, November 07, 2009

Losing Mum and Pup by Christopher Buckley

It's a miracle that Christopher Buckley came out halfway normal, with two such attention-grabbing parents as Patricia (socialite among socialites) and William (prime mover of the conservative movement, writer at immense length about nearly everything, and premiere stuffed shirt of the 20th century) Buckley. Losing Mum and Pup is not the story of how he managed to do that, though there are hints around the edges. Instead, this is the book of how he coped during the year between their two deaths -- a more focused memoir, about a particular period of time, one that he can encompass more easily and get down into words.

The junior Buckley has never written with the stentorian seriousness of his father; his novels are cutting satires of contemporary politics (at their best, such as the scalpel-sharp Thank You For Smoking, Christopher Buckley rivals Waugh for clear-eyed nastiness), and he's written little nonfiction before this. (There is one previous memoir-like object, his first published book: Steaming to Bamboola, which tells the story of one year that he spent as a merchant seaman, without ever explaining how William F. Buckley's son came to be a merchant seaman or connecting that year with anything before or after in his life. Losing Mum and Pup is a bit more expansive than Steaming, but the younger Buckley is still mostly a private person; he's willing to write about his very public parents clearly, but keeps offstage the parts of his life that don't directly relate to those dying parents.)

Losing Mum and Pup is thus not the story of what it was like to grow up with those two larger-than-life figures as parents -- which is probably the story that most of us would be most interested in -- but what it was like to realize that they were going away. Buckley reflects on "orphanhood" in the first chapter, after a number of people refer to him as an orphan (and he wryly notes that becoming an orphan at fifty-five is rather different than having it happen when a child), but comes to realize that the moment when you understand that you are part of the older generation does have unexpected power.

Buckley does give some medical details -- thankfully, not all of them, but enough to give the reader the shape of the situation, and have him share in the feelings of unease and powerlessness. But Losing Mum and Pup is primarily a book about coming to terms with one's dying father. Every man has a complicated relationship with his father, and the more alpha-male that father is, the more complications. William Buckley wasn't physically dominating, true, but imagine growing up in that household and hoping to win just one argument, once!

Grief and sadness are not in Christopher Buckley's usual emotional register; Losing Mum and Pup is thus not a book steeped in sadness and melancholy. It's not light-hearted or cynical, either, but it's an essentially clear-eyed look at an event that has to come to all of us that live long enough ourselves. Given the alternative, I know I'd prefer to be the one outliving my older relatives, and it is the natural order of things. Christopher Buckley has moved far from the high-church Catholicism of his father, but it's clear that "the natural order of things" is still a concept that has power to help him make peace with the world.

So Losing Mum and Pup is not as funny as the usual Christopher Buckley book -- thankfully -- but it is as incisive and insightful as we've come to expect from him. I probably wouldn't recommend it to a reader currently mourning her own parents -- one doesn't want to get into comparisons over the dead, and it's hard to compete with the Buckleys -- but, otherwise, it's a fine meditation on loss and all the kinds of separation a child needs to make.

No comments:

Post a Comment