But Enough About You: Essays
He doesn’t like the term “humorist,” but, as he tells us in the Preface to BUT ENOUGH ABOUT YOU, his entertaining new collection of essays, Christopher Buckley rejects second-class status on behalf of artists who are in “the business of trying to make people laugh.” As well he should. It’s not news that humor is one of the hardest forms of entertainment to master. In IMAGES: My Life in Film, Ingmar Bergman wrote with admiration of artists who had a talent for comedy. “I brooded a good deal over how others could so easily make people laugh,” Bergman wrote. “Even if my life had depended on it, I couldn’t figure out how they did it.”
Buckley had already figured it out when he wrote his first novel, THE WHITE HOUSE MESS, and, for 30 years, has been one of the funniest and most insightful writers in America. He is best known for his novels, but the 89 essays in this collection show his skills in the short form.
"The word I wrote most often in my notes as I read the book was 'hilarious.' Indeed, this volume contains some of Buckley’s best one-liners."
The essays have been grouped into nine categories. The first, “But Enough About You,” are all about him: the time he spent after boarding school as a “deck boy aboard a Norwegian tramp freighter,” where his job was “to prevent the stevedores from stealing, a function I performed with spectacular lack of efficiency”; the surprise of discovering that someone had paper-clipped top-secret nuclear launch procedures to the back of a speech he had written for his boss, Vice-President Bush. The “But Seriously” section contains some of his more outlandish comic pieces, including fake Supreme Court decisions and “A Short History of the Bug Zapper,” which describes a nitroglycerin-based product that, in addition to zapping the bugs, “blows up a lieutenant colonel and two brevet majors who mistakenly dip their spoons into it, seeking to sweeten their coffee.”
This is the tone throughout most of the book. In a lively piece on Peru, he writes, “At our hotel, the Monasterio, they’ll pipe oxygen into your room for an extra $25 a day. Sold.” On The New Yorker’s political cartoons: “If a newspaper editorial cartoon shouts its opinion at you over the scrambled eggs, The New Yorker cartoon hands you a Scotch and nudges you toward whatever truth it has in its sights.” Pick just about any piece in any of the sections --- comic riffs of statecraft, his book reviews, longer pieces on such topics as social faux pas and the funniest known telegrams --- and you’ll find many examples of Buckley’s gift for comic writing.
Buckley’s blind spots and libertarian sympathies are magnified in the essay form more than in his novels. For example, he has justifiable criticism of Joe Kennedy, Sr., the patriarch of the Kennedy clan, but calls Ronald Reagan “one of the late-twentieth-century’s great leaders,” a man with “a curious mind, glad soul, and warm heart,” and doesn’t mention Iran-Contra or Reagan’s refusal to fight AIDS.
At times, Buckley’s privileged life and worldview lead to jarring choices. In between mentioning the duck Mpumalanga he ate during one meal in Africa and the crème de langoustine soup and ostrich he ate for another, he mentions a visit to Room 5 in B Sektion, Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island. And Buckley has an unfortunate tendency to focus on white males when a more inclusive approach would have served him better. He writes, “It is hard to think of a writer who has done more with the short story form than Ray Bradbury.” I thought: Alice Munro? Lydia Davis? Haruki Murakami? Later, he mentions a “diverse group” of artists who paid tribute to Bradbury. All 16 artists he cites are white males.
Despite these limitations, BUT ENOUGH ABOUT YOU is still an enjoyable book. The word I wrote most often in my notes as I read the book was “hilarious.” Indeed, this volume contains some of Buckley’s best one-liners. “Reading Hunter Thompson is like using gasoline for aftershave --- bracing.” Of THE JOY OF SEX, Buckley writes that “the tone is warm, learned, and friendly, as if Marcus Welby, M.D., had disappeared to California for a few months and come back with a great big grin on his face.” His version of a Donald Trump presidential inauguration speech includes such dead-on lines as “Lincoln was an okay president, but I would have freed the slaves, too.” Ingmar Bergman would have been jealous.
Reviewed by Michael Magras on May 23, 2014