I talk to my dogs but, though a lot of enthusiastic tail wagging takes place, I’m not blind to the observation of William James that they have no more understanding of the delights of literature and music than I do of the rapture of bones under hedges or smells of trees and lampposts. They belong to a different universe. I’m aiming to get two more: a rescue kuvasz next and then perhaps a Caucasian ovtcharka.
These are not breeds to turn over to dog walkers or leave to idle in the kitchen, unless you are aiming to become that mythical old woman who dies and is eaten up by her pets. They are work if owner and dog are to happily survive. “Industry is the enemy of melancholy,” William F. Buckley said, and when I last visited him in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., shortly before his death, he had a new puppy creating havoc, was so ill he could hardly remain vertical, yet was still writing marvellous prose in his final book on Ronald Reagan. Inspired by this, on the level of mole to mountain lion, I find my two kuvaszok and writing deadlines leave me little time for elegant woe.
I came across that Buckley quote in Losing Mum and Pup (Pup being William F. Buckley, not a young canine), written by Christopher Buckley after the death of both parents within a few months. Having one extraordinary parent is burden enough for any offspring, two is Sisyphean. Still, Christopher is at pains to emphasize the “greatness” of both parents.
“I use the term precisely,” Christopher writes, “for Pup was a great man . . . a great Catholic author, a great debater.” Similarly, his mother, Patricia Taylor Buckley of Vancouver, was a “great lady . . . (I boast) great, even grand.” But he isn’t up to explaining this greatness. I quite see how resentful one gets when your father can write a superb column in five minutes flat and sends you an email about your last novel that reads “P.S. this one didn’t work for me. Sorry.” But, while no man is a hero to his valet, it is sad when the son has pretty much nothing but the valet’s point of view himself.
What Christopher gives us, apart from a wonderful chapter about sailing with his father, is Pup trivia: lists of important people; Pup’s disdain for normal protocols on urination, leading to some unique pissing moments; his addiction to prescription medication, including enormous amounts of Ritalin. Most of us, including Christopher, could take Ritalin till we levitated but fat chance we’d produce the quality of work Buckley did. As for his mum (so glad he didn’t use that ghastly “mom” word), Pat was apparently a compulsive liar matched only by her compulsive drinking, which led to “Mum’s serial misbehaviour.” Her lying was world-class, disconnected from any reality as in “the king and queen always stayed with us when they were in Vancouver,” delivered with magnificent panache.
All good beach-book stuff, fascinating, well-written, but inessential. After all, we are talking about the man who wrenched America into a new path of thought that brought forth, among other things, Ronald Reagan, and I want to know more about the “greatness” before I read about the eccentricities. Christopher had a marvellous opportunity in this book but, following one of Pup’s personal habits, he pissed it away.
Almost anyone doing work that requires higher-than-usual mental activity has a touch of eccentricity. All those damn neurons firing across the brain’s synapses must take some offbeat paths. This can inhibit rather than help. J.D. Salinger has lived in the same New Hampshire town for the last 50 years and speaks to almost no one and has published almost nothing since The Catcher in the Rye. One local said her last exchange with him was in the 1990s when she accidentally dropped a homemade loaf of bread at his feet. “I can’t remember what he said,” she recalled, thus robbing literary life of new Salingerisms, “but he was very irritated.”
Writing families often write about each other. Generally it falls to the lesser talent to write about the greater one. Alexander Waugh (son of the wonderful Auberon, grandson of Evelyn) tried to evade the task by writing a biography of God during the bereavement period for his father, an eccentric but apt distraction for the heir to such an Anglo-Catholic inheritance as Brideshead Revisited. After that, he caught the family thing in a biography titled Father and Sons.
Martin Amis has established himself as the exception to the lesser talent rule. His father Kingsley was a hugely talented author, an attractive and dishevelled man living in a complicated ménage à trois, while Martin was short and dentally impaired. Martin overcame these challenges with new teeth and literary success, which resulted in a chorus of priggish British mockery and an industry of former girlfriends chronicling his “dating” habits in the British press. He relocated to America where whiter-than-white dentures are protected by the Constitution.
“I always knew I would have to commemorate him,” he writes of Kingsley in Experience. “He was a writer, and I am a writer; it feels like a duty to describe our case—a literary curiosity which is also just another instance of father and son. This will involve me in the indulgence of certain bad habits. Name-dropping is unavoidably one of them. But I’ve been indulging in that habit, in a way, ever since I first said ‘Dad.’ And I do it because it has been forced on me. I have seen what perhaps no writer should ever see: the place in the unconscious where my novels come from. I couldn’t have stumbled on it unassisted. Nor did I. I read about it in the newspaper.” That’s the Amis writing gene refined to a high degree.
Martin has five children. Eccentricity has been their petri dish. With luck, great literature will be the cultivated product.