Muhammed Ali may have a more widely recognized face, but is anyone's public persona clearer than William F. Buckley's? Is anyone's heart more colorfully embroidered on his sleeve, anyone's view of life so apparent in tone of voice and style of speaking? I don't think so.
And yet, in recent years, Buckley has favored his audience with new glimpses, new familiarites. In addition to editorializing about current events, he has written about sailing and spying. The boat he took sailing was brilliantly outfitted and, in keeping, his spies are equally dashing. Although he is not explicitly talking about politics in these "entertainments" -- Graham Greene's word for his own novels of intrigue -- the things that matter to Buckley, all of them, will always demand the most polished treatment. Such a shine is as much a part of his persona as are his drawled critiques and his ever-present, punctuating pencil.
In this spirit, "Who's On First" is a smartly told morality tale involving the cross purpose of the US and the USSR, the achievements of 20th-century technology (circa 1956), the technicians who are occupied with these tasks, and those who are watching them. The cast includes a Soviet spymaster covertly devoted to the classics of Russian literature; a Hungarian partisan of beauty, cunning, and faith in her cause; two grave and charming Russian scientists; the wife of one of them, a woman alluring, devoted, and witty; and Blackford Oakes, Buckley's subaltern ego, a fellow whose bounty, vigor, and curiosity exceed even that of his celebrated progenitor.
The primary operating force of the book involves the competition between the superpowers to put the first satellite into space. This sprint includes the temporary kidnapping of a gifted Soviet scientist and his wife, a devious plot to do away with Oakes, the murder of a Hungarian freedom fighter, scenes from the Soviet "archipelago," and episodes set in the streets of Paris and the waters of Scandinavia. It is a wide-ranging affair with an interesting twist, this being the fact that the Soviet success in this race is as much public record as Buckley's syntax.
The author underlines this fact in the pages preceding the action of his novel, and, having been informed of the general conclusion of the story, the reader is encouraged to pay close attention to the manner in which, the voice with which, the plot is thickened. An opportunity for Buckley to make himself further known to his audience, it is one he has concocted and is happy to grab hold of. Calling attenion to one's own inventiveness and then succeeding at being inventive -- tour de force and pas de deux in one -- is how this author has placed himself before us in the first place. And in this instance his pirouette is graceful, and a reader's pleasure deives both from the liveliness of the characters, and from spying on Buckley as he supposes what might have happened.
His suppositions, his story-telling are well-done. He has given us an attractive group who are bruised by the terror of the realities involved and who rely on their strength of character to see them through, a spirit which leaves nearly everyone standing at the end. "Who's On First" is a good read, and with the exception of one major coincidence -- a photo which plays too big a part in a story notably without false contrivances -- the story lides along nicely. If there is a continuing fault, it is that some depth is sacrificed to the narrative's dashing pace.
Buckley guides his listeners along as elegantly as an accomplished host moves diners to the living room after a good meal. While this book has been nourishing, while Buckley's company has been invigorating, his guests might have wished to dwell longer on the particulars of what has been offered.
However, it is a pleasure to visit with him in other than his customary quarters. One only hopes that he will invite us to his table again.