When Mom is social queen of New York and Dad is the Right’s leading intellectual, your childhood—and adulthood—are bound to be perfect memoir fodder. Christopher Buckley, though, long ago resolved not to write a book about his famous parents, Patricia and William F. Buckley Jr. But after his father died of a heart attack in February 2008, just 10 months after his mother’s death, Buckley, a novelist and political satirist, changed his mind. Apart from the “amazing material” he knew he had, he found that he also had some issues to work through regarding his conflicted relationship with his parents and theirs with him—and with each other. “It poured out of me,” says Buckley, recalling that when he finished the memoir, he realized he’d been in a virtual writing trance for 40 days. “Nothing biblical is intended by that,” he says with a laugh over a plate of risotto at Cafe Milano, a bistro in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood. Clad in a blue blazer, blue shirt and gray pants, the 56-year-old resembles a well-preserved preppy, with courtly manners and a wry sense of humor.
Although rumored to be a hatchet job, his memoir, Losing Mum and Pup (Twelve), he insists, is nothing of the sort. “This is not Daddy Dearest or Mommie Dearest,” Buckley says. “This is a love story. It just happens to be, like many love stories, a complex one.”
Readers can discern as much when, early in the book, Buckley, an only child, describes his 80-year-old mother being unplugged from her respirator at Stamford Hospital, where she had lapsed into a coma in 2007 after septic poisoning following a vascular operation. Buckley had learned that Pat was in her final hours earlier that day, after lecturing in Lexington, Virginia, and he found a livery driver willing to make the eight-hour trip to Connecticut. “It was quiet and peaceful in the room,” he writes of the scene, after he gave the doctor the okay to remove his mother from life support, his father having been too frail and distraught to make the decision. “I stroked her hair and said, the words surprising me…‘I forgive you.’… I didn’t want any anger left between us.”
“That line just happened—there is no planning for those things,” he says, quickly flagging down the waiter to order a “glass of that lovely Sauvignon Blanc,” as if to change the subject.
While Buckley refers repeatedly in the book to periods of strife and estrangement among all parties—his mother wasn’t speaking to his father “about a third of the time,” and he often cut off contact with both parents for months on end—he generally avoids addressing the causes of these rifts. “I left out a lot of stuff—you have no idea,” he says emphatically. “I didn’t want to write that kind of book,” presumably meaning a tell-all. Naturally, these withholdings can tantalize, if not frustrate, the reader. During this interview, he is almost as circumspect. “You’ll have to draw your own conclusions,” he says several times.