Thursday, February 04, 2010
Book Report: "An American Family: The Buckleys," by Reid Buckley
"An American Family: The Buckleys" is the story of a youthful and ambitious clan that grew great together with the young and ambitious country in which they lived.
We have before us a gaggle of children born with the 20th Century. Children reared by proper and upright parents who accepted nothing less than perfection from them. In exchange they gained lives on sprawling estates with names like "Great Elm," and "Kamschatka."
They pursued overseas educations and employed nannies who alternately taught French and administered castor oil. They rode horses, walked their property lines shooting quail and rabbits...
Of course, the Buckleys were not just any American family. the large brood of William Sr., and Aloise grew up to be a rather potent bunch who left their traces upon the thin ice of American culture.
This story charts trajectories of the famed conservative ideologue William Jr., the one-term Conservative Party senator from New York, James, and a bevy of other sisters and brothers in lesser, if equally loving, detail.
Nonetheless, brother Reid's real purpose here is scripting a Valentine to his parents. He crafts a recollection demonstrating the strength of their imprint on the offspring.
"Our bonding as a family of individuals has expressed itself in the social, spiritual, and intellectual dimensions in astonishing degree," the author writes. "Though we differ widely among ourselves, and almost always, when coming together, argue fiercely, it's often as though the ten of us were extruded from the same toothpaste tube."
Which is to say, not a single one of The Buckley's sprawling progeny strayed from the family's profound Catholicism or credo of self-reliance.
Buckley's mom has an interesting background out of old New Orleans, a sturdy character with positive energy, and discrete charms, and the author canonizes her in the way those of us who love our mothers do.
But the chestnut here is Bill Sr.
For those of you who thought the Buckleys were a blue-blooded crowd with fake English accents out of Connecticut, the family’s southern, even Confederate, roots may come as something of a surprise.
Big Buckley hailed out of deep south Texas and made his first bundle of serious money in, of all places, Mexico. There he successfully "wildcatted," for oil and helped develop Tampico before his catholic principles ran afoul of the new revolutionary (and anti-clerical) government, which threw him out of the country.
Dad was forced to "start all over," but not in the way most of us would, which is why his story is worth a read.
Buckley lived large for a number of years, popping children hither and thither, housing them in impressive realty, without letting on that his was a shirtsleeve operation. He eventually struck some more oil in Venezuela. Only then was the future security and prominence of the family America came to know assured.
The children's textured lives in Texas, Mexico, Connecticut and South Carolina make for worthy recounting and Reid, like all the lucky long-lived, enjoys the reserved grace of explaining a disappeared world to us.
An accomplished, if not widely celebrated novelist, Buckley's well-developed mind and pen combine to render credentialed insight regarding Mexico. He is, too, great at recalling the eccentric and authentic characters populating his past, delighting and reveling in them.
He is looking back on a fulfilling and eventful life.
The book's lure may dim for some when Reid Buckley steps aside to punch in an article written by one or another of his many siblings about the good old days, which they certainly were.
He declares conservatism, such as the clan purveyed it, dead. And the brainy Buckleys do not appear to have much in common with that breed of rural no-nothing carrying the banner today.
"On the ideological level, we inherited an anachronism that we have tried lifelong to defend and perpetuate," he writes of the family's run through American politics. "Vain endeavor. Our parents were the product of a nation that has vanished, and we, their children, have manned the ramparts in defense of that ghost. From this standpoint, our existences have been futile, our works folly."
Indeed, "An American Family," views the world through the dark lens of an aged fellow looking backward, weighed down by the loss of so much family and so many contemporaries. It is a tome that loves the past.
His parents' time, he notes, "was the age of American infallibility. How lucky they were, both of them, born to the simultaneous emergence of our country from its international status as an exotic experiment in a faraway and uncouth region of the globe to become economically and militarily the central power on earth."
Reid Buckley is something of a fuddy-duddy. He seems proud of it, and even makes it look good. He likes what he likes, and don’t be surprised if your lifestyle or personal philosophy doesn‘t meet with his approval.
The things he approves of, and the type of person he admires, are gone from the scene, and this book recuperates their memory one last time.