One hesitates to review a book by William F. Buckley, Jr. – the pressure to produce perfect, or at least excellent, prose, is nearly overwhelming, especially as one sees throughout the course of this collection of Notes and Asides from his publication, the
National Review, that Buckley could, and presumably still can, be savage in critiquing his critics.
I began watching Buckley in 1966 on his long-lived interview show, "Firing Line." Throughout this book there are numerous references to his unusual way of speaking American English, his unfashionable dress sense veering towards the unkempt, his ungainly posture (some people accused him of slouching leftward as he languorously lay across his chair), and his insalubrious habit of rubbing a pen through his hair and then fellating it as he fixed his cold pale eyes at his weekly victim. In the 1960s, however, there were few viewing options, and "Firing Line" was the intellectual's choice, even the intellectual who found herself nearly always at odds with Buckley's conservative political opinions. It was on his show that I first saw the Dalai Lama. The Eastern holy man giggled at several of Buckley's queries, a tactic that most of his interviewees were too pompous to adopt.
The "Notes and Asides" selected here are a chronology interwoven with Buckley's brief commentaries on what was going on at the time, since most of the NAs are specific to politics, a playing field that shifts rapidly, often leaving erstwhile players trampled in the mud. To be eligible for NA, it appears, a letter or comment had to lack the gravitas that earmarked it as a "letter to the editor" but had to contain some bit of grit that attracted the editor's attention, whether amused or scornful. Eventually it became Buckley's page, allowing him the freedom to say what he liked, almost but not totally
One event drew Buckley's scornful reaction like few others, and gives insight into his character: after the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1990,
Time magazine graced its cover with a picture of Mikhail Gorbachev, hailed by
Time as "Man of the Decade." As noted in a letter to National Review, one Andrew Turnbull suggested that "If a miracle drug is ever discovered that cures all disease,
Time magazine will honor disease," to which WFB responded, Right on, Turnbull! Disease of the Century! Buckley's excitation is obvious by his use, twice, of the exclamation point, a punctuator he generally eschewed and against whose use in his publication he issued a
ukase, or proclamation having the force of absolute law, using a Russian term presumably because of all words in all languages he found it to be the most accurate.
Cancel Your Own Goddamn Subscription is a rich stew of historical anecdote spiced with acerbic wit from Buckley's tongue-laved pen. I perceive a certain softening of his rhetoric as he slipped into semi-retirement. More simply funny letters, such as those from Art Buchwald about his ongoing sycophantic relationship with Hertz, for example, and a long exchange of opinions about whether it was alright to start a sentence with "and." Fewer threats to horsewhip one's opponents, fewer suggestions on how to insult them.
Latterly, "Notes and Asides" began to falter, perhaps because WFB was no longer angry enough, though surely he was still sharp enough, to evoke from
NR readers the "inquisitive, zany, confused, annoyed and piquant" material that characterized its nearly 40-year run. It now appears occasionally, "when there is material at hand."