Who's on First

William F. Buckley, Doubleday & Company, 1980

William F. Buckley was never really known for his fiction even though he wrote a fair bit of it. Like uneventful intelligence careers of John Le Carré and Graham Greene in Britain’s SIS, Buckley had a brief tenure in the CIA working for Howard Hunt (of Watergate infamy). His fiction bears that stamp, even though his couldn’t be more different. Whereas both Le Carré and Greene drift into moral ambiguity Buckley’s too handsome to be believed Blackford Oakes, aims for the polar opposite of that grim, self-loathing world. And in his precise prose, he succeeds wonderfully.

The ironic thing about a writer measuring himself against Le Carré is that David Cornwell (the author’s real name) was placing himself opposite Ian Fleming’s glam world of “sexy, snobbery and sadism.” Which, if we’re going to be all geometric about it (and that just have been something the sailor in Buckley might have gone for) that puts Buckley’s Who’s on First in the same neighborhood as James Bond. As spy-game fiction goes, he’s not.

In the third of the Blackford Oaks novels, set in the heyday of the Cold War as the Soviet scientific win the first leg of the space race by launching sputnik into orbit in 1957, Blacky Oakes is sent on a mission to push a Russian Scientist into defection or, even better, going back behind the Iron Curtain to continue to spy on the Soviet’s space program. Buckley has a sense of humor about his writing that Fleming lacks and Le Carré buries in anguish and forms filled out in triplicate.

Blackford Oakes reflects Buckley like Bond reflects Fleming – and both were aristocratic doers (can we still say men of action?) who were never accused of taking the world too seriously. The similarities don’t go much further. Between those two, who can say who can say who is the better writer? Buckley is, certainly, the more clever of the two. The plot pacing is tight, the plotting is a precise as his prose. Which, for the uninitiated can be very precise. Even back in the literate 70’s and 80’s people made fun of Buckley for his sometime infuriating precision.

Still, it never hurt anyone to read a writer smarter than yourself.

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