- Who’s on first by William Buckley
Allen Lane, 276 pp, £5.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 7139 1359 2
There are two ways of writing spy stories. One is to have the rival spies play out their contest in isolation, unconnected with the real world of armies and grain deals and elections. Real-life espionage is probably like this a lot of the time. Although the real function of spies is to find out about the other side’s army, nevertheless the most prestigious section of an intelligence department is normally the section that spies on the other side’s intelligence department. John le Carré writes novels about this kind of espionage: we know that whether or not Smiley defeats Karla, it will make no difference to the price of eggs. The alternative is to link the spies with some event or threat of world-shaking importance, like the assassination of De Gaulle or the kidnapping of Churchill.
William F. Buckley Jr. is a practitioner of this method. Who’s on first is about the Fifties race to put the first satellite into space. An advantage of the isolationist approach is that readers can cheer for Smiley regardless of their politics (which is how come Le Carré gets published in the Soviet Union). You cannot keep politics out of the other sort of spy story.
William Buckley is a kind of American Bernard Levin, a famous columnist of great personal charm and nasty right-wing views. Like Levin, he has a baroque prose style, favouring long sentences that branch off in unexpected directions; and when he wants to say ‘admittedly not as good’ he writes ‘concededly less expeditious’. In his novels, the CIA are the good guys and the KGB the baddies; and in this one there is an assumption – shared by every likeable character regardless of nationality – that an American victory in the space race would be a triumph for worldwide freedom, not merely a triumph for the USA. However; these are premises which the reader is invited to share, rather than points scored: Buckley is too smart to try to write best-sellers and propaganda at the same time. There is nothing wrong with simplistic ethics as a basis for fiction – if there were we would have no great Westerns. But it fixes the intellectual level of the story, and readers who demand some acknowledgement that the Red Indian braves might not be mindless savages had better pass over Buckley.
Given this limitation, how well does he do? Earlier this year I presented Buckley with an American Book Award for his last novel, Stained Glass; and now I must confess that privately I thought it dull. This one is better, mainly because the chief secondary characters – a Russian scientist and his wife – are in love and happy, so that the danger to them gives the reader a worry more personal – and therefore more effective – than international politics. Yet, despite a story that develops continually and is entirely credible, I found (as I had with Stained Glass) that my attention was wandering. I think the explanation lies with Buckley’s hero, the CIA agent Blackford Oakes.
It is often said that in thrillers plot is everything and character is nothing. This is the reverse of the truth. It is relatively easy to imagine a spy, give him a mission, have the other side catch on to what he is doing, bring in a woman or two, and let the hero succeed by the skin of his teeth. Of course there is a lot of craft involved in making all that work well, but what is really difficult is to make the reader believe in and care about the characters who do these preposterous things. And I don’t care about Blackford Oakes.
His specifications look good on paper. He is an American with an aristocratic English mother (room there for interesting class/national conflicts); a man deeply in love with a woman who thinks his work is shameful; a spy who carries a Jane Austen novel in his pocket and writes funny, touching love letters.
It is often interesting to ask about a character: would I care if he broke a leg? If James Bond broke a leg, we would be anxious; if Bertie Wooster broke a leg, we would probably laugh; if Mr Squeers broke a leg, we would gloat. If Blackford Oakes broke a leg, I would not give a damn. And it is because I have been told about his emotional conflicts and his secret vulnerability but have never been made to share his inner life. Only the love letters work: the wild humour, and the love tacked on dismissively at the end, are entirely convincing as the writing of a powerful, cultivated man who is frightened of expressing tenderness. Otherwise there is no sympathetic magic – a problem not uncommon among journalists who turn to fiction. Similarly, Oakes’ KGB antagonist is a heartless robot. I expect KGB men are heartless robots in real life, but they must be more than that in fiction, because you can’t write novels about machines.
‘What matters therefore in the historical novel is not the re-telling of great historical events, but the poetic awakening of the people who figured in those events.’ When Georg Lukacs wrote that he was dealing with commercial fiction (specifically, Scott’s Waverley novels). Oakes is a running character in Buckley’s books, so there is room for him to develop into a person who will engage rather than just impress us. I hope that is the way Buckley is heading, although the success of the first three books – all best-sellers – may incline him to stick with what he has got.
Does Who’s on first portray espionage as it really is? I think so. (I am about to give away the ending, so anyone who plans to read the book should stop here.) Oakes kidnaps the Russian scientist and gets from him information which will ensure that the USA wins the space race. Then, over-achieving, Oakes sends the scientist back home to be an agent-in-place. The poor man is found out and tortured, so to save his life Oakes lets the Russians get their sputnik up first, thereby losing more than he had gained. It sounds like a fairly typical ClA operation.