Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

May 22, 2013

Another memoir to read this summer

Nathan Harter
Greensburg Daily News

Greensburg — Recently, I had recommended that you read Rod Dreher’s bestseller “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming”, but who could predict I would soon pick up a copy of Christopher Buckley’s “Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir”?

The two books are almost twins, which means I owe a few words in this space about the latter.

Never before had I reason to marvel at the complicated reportage of goodness. As Dreher had examined the wholesome life of his devout sister, though not without something of an edge and a lot of self-reflection as to what her life now meant, looking back, Buckley recounts the last years of his celebrity parents with a reflexive and at times exasperated air.

To be sure, Ruthie had been a small-town girl with modest ambition and only local renown, whereas Bill Buckley and his stunning wife Pat were feted by presidents, royalty, monsignors, and movie stars. Reading the two books back-to-back, from the smallest village in backwater Louisiana to the globe-trotting whirl of the rich-and-famous, can feel like being whipsawed.

In both instances, however, the writers have reason as survivors to pause and put into perspective the deaths that gave meaning to such lives and to display in gripping fashion what people think when somebody close to you dies. We rush about our days, then escape into the television or online, yet the death of a loved one arrests our minds and holds us – however briefly – so that we might look anew at our life’s trajectory.

Christopher Buckley ponders what it must mean to be a great man, given that he grew up in the shadow of one and had occasion to witness others up close. And the author struggles, as I most certainly did, with the inference that you will never measure up to your old man. But then Buckley stumbles onto what is a more relevant question for most of us: what does it mean to be a not a great man, but a good one?

Full disclosure: I had admired William F. Buckley, Jr., since high school. I always included him in my short pantheon of intellectual heroes, and I accumulated most of his books – which is a long, long shelf at my studio. Maybe it belongs to the sons of great men to pay attention in earnest to what it really means to have been great and (if they are sufficiently gifted for the task) to share what they have learned.

Both Dreher and Buckley (the son) are terrific writers, though I was taken as much by their disclosures of spiritually restless lives, less assured than their subjects about the one true faith, but maybe more attuned to the experience of being. There is something to be said for those who simply share what it’s like to live in the in-between, in the encounter.

Buckley tells plenty of rollicking good tales, capturing the spirit of his high-flying parents, as well as painful accounts of their failings and faltering. The book is something of an act of filial piety that happens to make you laugh out loud at times and choke with grief at others. I’m convinced that if you buy both of these for a relaxed weekend – and I’m convinced you will complete them that quickly — you will emerge Monday a more thoughtful person.

I would go one step further. You will be ennobled. Now, that word “ennobled” sounds awfully stuffy in our day and age, and some of you will scoff, but men have known since antiquity the power of great lives well told. I testify to such an experience after reading these books. It is almost that I was meant to encounter them together, now. Why is that?