Monday, August 02, 2010

[Books] Book Look: Losing Mum and Pup by Christopher Buckley

Book Look: Losing Mum and Pup by Christopher Buckley: I'm a big Christopher Buckley fan. He writes sharp little satiric comedies, based primarily on political or social "issues" with a gimlet eye, but a sympathetic one (he's a "laugh with" versus a "laugh at" guy). His style is smooth and accessible but still very highly crafted and thoughtful. Honestly, it's hard for me to imagine that only one of his books Thank You For Smoking has ever been done up by Hollywood. One of my first book reviews (on Slashdot of all places) was of his underappreciated alien abduction tale Little Green Men.

So when his parents, the redoubtable William F. and Pat Buckley, scions of the New York, Washington, and even global, high society, died within a year of each other, he found himself bringing his satirists eye to bear on something very personal and painful. But as they say, all comedy stems from pain, so who better than a comic novelist to bring such events to life.

I suspect the first thing that most people of a certain age will feel in reading this is something akin to familiarity, but Buckley's experiences are likely to be a bit more extreme. Probate and funeral arrangements are, for anyone, a time-sucking undertaking. Imagine doing it when some of the most powerful people alive need to have their say in the process and when hundreds of big players from around the world are peppering you daily emails of condolence and all of them have to be answered. Now do it twice. Oh, and somewhere in the middle of that, come to terms with your relationship with your parents and your personal grieving. Buckley, a satirist to the core, manages to laugh to keep from crying (at least as far as this narrative is concerned) more often than not. He recounts famous and infamous conflicts and farcical adventures with both parents, for example the sending out regular urine reports on his ailing father to the likes of Henry Kissinger.

Another point of identification is his mixed feelings towards his parents -- both of whom were ferociously loyal to him but unforgiving and demanding in the extreme. For his part he works to reconcile his resentment towards the slights he had experienced over the years -- the seething anger we all feel towards experiences that, if they had not come via or parents, would have been quickly forgotten -- with his foundation of unquestioning love for them.

There is so much to recommend in this book, including hilarious Buckley family stories almost as if this were a Christopher Buckley novel, mixed with harrowing and heartfelt moments, but the best thing that can be said for it is that it could be used as a guide for maintaining perspective and appreciating the absurdities of the process of losing your parents, all in an effort to keep your sanity.

Just a couple of more observations:

First, many years ago I read the elder Buckley's sailing books in which he and Christopher and pack of friends would take voyages across oceans, having a variety of salty adventures and maintaining diaries along the way. One of the voyagers was Danny Merritt, Christopher's best friend (also devoted friend of WFB), who always seemed to me to be a bit of glue in the interpersonal dynamics of the boating parties. It was nice to read after all those years the Christopher and Danny maintained their BFF-ish relationship. It's good to read about such a thing in a world where friendships tend to dissolve over time and distance.

Second, the some of the critical response to this book was flabbergasting. Specifically, I'm referring to the L.A. Times and the SF Gate reviews. In the course of the narrative, Buckley dropped only superficial mention of the domestic problems in the Buckley household over the years, but often went into a bit of gruesome detail about the physical breakdown both his parents faced at the end. These reviews seemed to feel that was wrong way around; that it was somehow disrespectful to discuss their illnesses, but simultaneously unconscionable to leave their personal weakness unexamined.

This is astounding to me: that the unavoidable ravages of time and nature are shaming, but there is a duty to expose our lurid personal weaknesses and neuroses for all to see. What a bizarre notion. I mean to say, WTF? I think Buckley did it just right. The book is a memoir about losing his parents not fodder for Jerry Springer. Anyway, as I am reminded every day, and as I remind you every month: It's not my world.

Should you read Losing Mum and Pup? Yes. It's hard for me to imagine anyone (short of shallow-minded journalists) not liking this book. Despite the dire topic, it is thoroughly amusing and uplifting. If you're like me, you eagerly blast through it in a couple of sittings.