BOOK REVIEW: Faith of his father

With humor and pathos, Christopher Buckley chronicles life with his parents and his own lost faith
July 31, 2009


A Memoir By Christopher Buckley
Twelve, 257 pp., $24.99

If having a famous parent gives certain creature comforts, it also comes with a burden of living in that parent's shadow. Christopher Buckley lives in the looming shadow of William F. Buckley Jr., who founded National Review magazine in 1955 and became the intellectual godfather of social conservatives.

Buckley's father wrote more than 50 books before his death in 2008, and his only son is no sluggard as an author, turning out 14 books since The White House Mess in 1987. Humor is the consistent thread in Christopher Buckley's work, and that's true even in this book about making peace with two headstrong parents.

Buckley's humor shows up even as he describes the ritual of listening to a funeral-home employee explaining every ghoulish price for his mother's cremation: "'Transferring remains to funeral home: $695.' 'Transferring to or from crematory: $395.' Wouldn't it just be cheaper to hire a limo?"

Amid the frequent humor, Buckley writes of pathos. He found the social skills of his mother, Pat, so grating that he describes finding many of his reproachful letters to her unopened. On the advice of Pat Buckley's orthopedist, who had to amputate three of her toes, Buckley authorized removing the respirator from his comatose mother. Buckley wept at his dying mother's bedside and surprised himself by telling her, "I forgive you." He admits later in the book that he found the remark presumptuous but also necessary.

The bulk of Losing Mum and Pup is about the several months that Buckley spent looking after his father, who was heartsick with grief and pummeled by emphysema. Several times Buckley refers to his father's contemplating suicide. "If it weren't for the religious aspect, I'd take a pill," he quotes his father as telling him.

The infirm elder Buckley took many pills, including Ritalin and a prescription sleep aid called Stilnox, but not to the point of a fatal overdose. Instead, he died of a heart attack in the study at his home in Stamford, Conn., on February 27, 2008.

Buckley discusses both of his parents' flaws at some length. His father did not return home from a trip to South Africa for a few weeks when Christopher had a serious illness, and he left Christopher's graduation ceremony at Yale after growing restless.

Nevertheless, Buckley writes with an undeniable affection for both parents. He credits his mother for his sense of humor and the absurd and is in awe of his father's abilities as a prolific and clear writer. His description of having to insist that his almost fatally dehydrated father stay in a hospital is enough to drive many sons to tears: "He was clutching my arm. It wrenched my heart. This was terra nova to me: the delusional parent who must be denied for his own good."

Buckley is a longtime friend of Christopher Hitchens, one of the wittier New Atheists, and writes repeatedly about losing his own faith. Buckley wrote a two-act play about the Catholic saint Edmund Campion, and with his boarding-school friend John Tierney he wrote a satirical book called God Is My Broker.

He is not a man who rejoices in having lost his faith. He writes of his father keeping his faith alive by taking him to Mexico, where they would read aloud to one another from G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy. He confesses to pretending, for his dying father's benefit, that he had returned to the church. He writes of his mother, who grew up Anglican in Vancouver, attending church at Christmas and Easter but otherwise not expressing much interest in spiritual matters.

Although Buckley walks down several rabbit trails in this leisurely narrative, he does not explain why he ultimately gave up on Christianity. Buckley's respect for his father's faith is strong enough that he allows himself to hope it may be true after all: "How did it turn out, Pup? Were you right after all? Is there a heaven? Is Mum there with you?"

If Buckley ever finds his way back to a Yes on those questions, he owes his admirers another memoir.

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