Sunday, July 12, 2009

Review: Death, be not expensive


In Losing Mum and Pup Christopher Buckley details the experience of losing both his mother, the socialite Patricia Taylor Buckley, and his father William F Buckley Jr, founder of the modern conservative movement, in whimsical but touching, name-dropping but natural prose. Unlike Joan Didion and her recent work, The Year of Magical Thinking, Buckley’s narrative doesn’t rest on unrest. (Didion’s story was much harder to tell: that of losing her quirky and devoted husband, as well as watching her daughter slip away before her very eyes. Didion’s daughter actually died after the book was finished, an update to her theatrical adaptation that ran on Broadway. She was played magnificently by Vanessa Redgrave.) Instead, Buckley almost creates caricatures of his parents in order to detail the stresses of putting one’s parents to rest.

The epigraph of the book comes from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest: ‘To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.’ Taking Wilde’s quotation to heart, Buckley pithily describes the end of both parents, which happen within a twelvemonth time. He first details his mother’s unlikely background, from a farming family of British Columbia who goes to Vassar College in order to escape the mathematics requirements of Canadian colleges, who ends up marrying the brother of her college roommate. In one of the more humorous moments, the author reveals the mystery of why Patricia never finished college: ‘Pup [his father] and I hear her give various reasons for this over the years: She had to return to Vancouver because her mother had broken her back while writing; because her brother Firpo had broken his back riding; because she had broken her back riding. One night, after imbibing about two acres’ worth of vineyard grapes, she informed Pup and me–us!–that she had, in fact, left Vassar “to go back to Vancouver and save my parents’ marriage.” This revelation was as rococo as it was flabbergasting.’ Patricia’s apt for storytelling shows how she was a respected socialite.

The rest of the book details the death of Christopher’s father, whose memorial is a bigger shrine if only because in the public eye he had many more followers and devout critics. Without going into much detail of William’s final days, I found it fascinating to note that English was his third language – like Joseph Conrad, whose writings and quotations Christopher enjoys using when discussing his father. The author’s portrayal of his famous father made me laugh several times, thinking that the founder of modern conservatism was winsome as his wife. For example, when the Buckleys would host the National Review Christmas party: ‘Never to waste time, Pup kept to a simple recipe: one quart milk, one quart rum, one quart ice cream. He might, just for the heck of it, empty an entire (large) bottle of vanilla extract into it. The effects of this milky elixir upon the conservative movement were quite galvanizing. Pup would play Handel’s Messiah at full blast on the phonograph. By the time the final joyous hallelujah trumpet blasts sounded, the entire conservative movement was passed out, comatose. The wonder is any of them made it home alive. How different history might have been.’

There are some great moments, especially when the author speaks directly to the reader on advice for preparing parents for death. One of the highlights was certainly when the insurance company sent the following letter after Patricia had died. ‘Dear Mrs. Buckley, Thank you for sending your death certificate. The raised seal on it is not sufficiently raised. Please send us another death certificate with raised seal and we can then be able to begin processing your claim. I’m surprised they didn’t add a P.S.: Have a nice day!‘ Christopher details the price of coffins, of cremations, of renting projectors and ‘labour’ to do Power Point presentations (about $20,000, if you’re interested) – and how all of this runs to the extremely absurd. He knows that his parents are mocking him from heaven.

Losing Mum and Pup is a fast, amusing read, even when there seems to be too many people running around in the narrative, a large and famous cast of characters that no doubt graced the Buckleys’ home but also seemed to be used to show off their connections to the political and artistic worlds. Like Oscar Wilde, Buckley’s narrative almost rests on fantastic anecdotes and biting one-liners, which I hope this review pointed out. It’s a very refreshing and reassuring look at death and how wild – in both good and bad ways – it can be.


Kari said…

I believe Michelle is upset you beat her to reviewing this book!

Salvatore said…

Ah, whoops. Her review is probably better than mine too.