But Enough About You: Essays, by Christopher Buckley (Simon & Schuster, 450 pp., $27.50)
I’d known for years that Christopher Buckley was an amusing man. His novel Thank You for Smoking (1994), for example, had me crying, yes crying, with laughter. But it wasn’t until we happened to be at a dinner party at the impressive townhouse of a well-known female philanthropist that I witnessed the spontaneous flowering of his comic genius. The two of us were chatting with our host when the subject of exotic travel came up. Christo ventured that he had just returned from Nootka and wondered, eyes gleaming, how my recent trip there had turned out. I ran with it. I allowed as how my journey, too, had been profitable, though of course the political situation was worrisome. Our host nodded. There proceeded a detailed description of our separate exploits in that far-off kingdom, while our host smiled bravely and continued nodding as we inveigled her ever deeper into that Romantic destination. “You have a house in Nootka, I believe?” Christo asked at one point, accepting a spot more Chardonnay. Our host, a woman of many properties on several continents, was by now in deep waters. “Do I?” she asked, “Do I?” She twirled the wine glass thoughtfully.
You can’t blame her. It really is difficult to keep these things straight. Christo kept Nootka afloat for a good ten or 15 minutes until the dinner gong deposited us among other guests. We return to Nootka whenever events involve us in e-mail correspondence — I am pleased to report that I was recently named Under Secretary to the Assistant Minister of Grace and Favor Residences (without portfolio) — and hope to induce certain acquaintances to consider it as a retirement spot.
Interviewers beware: Whimsy is a Buckley specialité. A biographical note to one of his books said that he had been an adviser to every president since William Howard Taft. A radio interviewer, confining his “research” to a quick glance at the dust jacket, was surprised. You have to get up early in the morning to beat these guys. “You were an adviser to William Howard Taft?” “Yes.” “So . . . we could talk about that?” “Sure.” And they did.
Pace Nootka, Christopher Buckley really is a well-travelled bloke. At 18, he signed up as a deckhand aboard a Norwegian tramp freighter, which took him from New York, through the Panama Canal, and around the world. A Hong Kong tattoo, acquired for $7, is apparently still with him, “a fading blue smudge” on his right shoulder. “Of some other shoreside expenses,” he winked, “the less said, the better.” Hmmm. Have some more Chardonnay.
But Enough About You will set you back a modest $27.50. But you get not only that freighter trip but also sojourns to the Alaska Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race; the Matterhorn; Ireland; London on Remembrance Day; Machu Picchu; Zambia, where the elephants (and lions) are very close; Easter Island; Hanoi, where a motorbike whizzes by with a pile of boiled carcasses on its back (“Pigs? No, dogs”); and Paris (“When you are in love, you go to Paris”).
The preface to But Enough About You dilates on the vocation of the comic writer. (Please, do not call him a “humorist.” He won’t answer to that description.) Moral: It’s a lot harder than you may think. Christo quotes the playwright Wendy Wasserstein: “Think writing funny is easy, do you? Really? You try it.” Then there is the element of prestige: There isn’t any, not really. Make the reader laugh, wrote Somerset Maugham, “and he will think you a trivial fellow. But bore him the right way and your reputation is assured.”
It’s a curious thing. Comic writers are thought superficial while purveyors of bad news are thought deep. Why? “It is only shallow people,” Oscar Wilde once observed, “who do not judge by appearances.” Comic writers glory in appearances, their glittering surfaces, their deceptions, their surprises and incongruities. The tragedians and deep thinkers among us eschew the surface and dig down, terrier-like, to . . . to what? P. G. Wodehouse, whose name pops up frequently, and always with appropriate reverence, in this book, got to what B. Wooster would have called the point or nub of the issue. In a late and unduly neglected gem called Ice in the Bedroom (1961), Wodehouse portrays a successful romance novelist who determines to give up the fluff and settle down to write “an important novel.”
“But can you?”
“Can I what?”
“Write an important novel.”
“Of course I can. All you have to do is cut out the plot and shove in plenty of misery.”
Wodehouse cut out the misery and shoved in plenty of delight. “I believe,” he remarked in an oft-quoted letter to his friend William Townend, “there are only two ways of writing a novel. One is mine, making the thing a sort of musical comedy without music, and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going down deep into life and not caring a damn.” Most great artists plumb the depths; Wodehouse remained fixed, gloriously, on the surface. That was both his limitation and his achievement. What he lacked in profundity he made up for in verbal dexterity. His province was humor: He didn’t trespass into other realms. He came bearing pleasure, not insight. A master of incongruity, Wodehouse left anguish and betrayal, self-knowledge and social awareness to other, generally lesser, talents.
There is something Wodehousean about large swaths of But Enough About You. Many of the nearly 90 pieces that compose the book are allegro little divertissements, guaranteed to put a smile on your face, a song in your heart, and a spring in your step.
Donald Trump’s inauguration speech as president of the United States, for example, is delicious, as are the collection of faux pas, “misspeakings,” and other cringe-making episodes of social embarrassment that Christo offers for his readers’ delectation. I wish I had heard Jimmy Carter publicly refer to Hubert Horatio Hornblower, when he meant Hubert Horatio Humphrey. Even better was Mr. Humphrey’s observation that “no sane person likes the Vietnam War, and neither does President Johnson.” And what I would have paid to be present, in 1966, at the state dinner in Vienna when British foreign minister George Brown accosted his table mate. “He had enjoyed his wine,” Christo reports, and upon hearing the orchestra strike up a tune, turned to an exquisite creature in violet beside him and said, “Madame, you look ravishing. May we dance?” “No, Mr. Brown, for three reasons. First, this is a state dinner, not a ball. Second, that is the Austrian state anthem, not a waltz. And third, I am the cardinal archbishop of Vienna.” Nobody’s perfect, as Joe E. Brown observed at the end of Some Like It Hot.
But Enough About You belongs to that most exigent genre, the literary miscellany. There is a bit of this, a bit of that. Most of the pieces are quite short. Most are comic. But there are serious currents here, too. The visit to Auschwitz is nothing short of harrowing; for all you may think you know about that enormity, it was worse than you can possibly imagine. There is a fine essay on Hitler’s favorite ambassador, the despicable Joseph Kennedy. (He “had his good points and his bad points,” Christo generously allows. “It’s his bad points that weren’t so good.”) And the review of Henry Kissinger’s magisterial On China is subtle and politically mature.
Horace once said that he endeavored to delight as well as instruct. You can’t read two pages into a book by Christopher Buckley without feeling the delight. The instruction is generally more insinuating. In the 1980s, Christo worked as a speechwriter for the first President Bush, and his affectionate portrait of the gentlemanly leader recalls a bygone age and reminds us, I think, of how unfairly history has treated that statesman. (Stray datum: Did you know that Bush referred to himself as “The Vishnu,” after the Indian god with four arms?) During the 1988 presidential election Newsweek (remember Newsweek?) ran a picture of Bush on its cover with the legend “The Wimp Factor.” Christo comments:
I never once heard Mr. Bush chafe at the preposterous notion that he lacked walnuts. He was entirely serene about his manhood. And why shouldn’t he have been? If you’ve been to war as a young man, seen death face-to-face; cradled your dying six-year-old daughter in your arms; drilled for oil in Texas; raised a family; been elected to Congress; headed the Republican party — during Watergate! Thanks, Dick — opened the first liaison office in China; run the CIA; and got yourself elected vice president of the United States, maybe you don’t need to have your manhood validated by smartass magazine editors and other soft-faced thumb-suckers of the punditariat.
Exactly. As I say, this book delights, but it also instructs, in the most delightful way. My only quibble concerns the libations. Surely it’s “Gins and tonic,” not “Gin and tonics.” What would they say in Nootka?
– Mr. Kimball is publisher of Encounter Books, and editor and publisher of The New Criterion.