Marco Polo, If You Can, by William F. Buckley, Jr., New York: Doubleday, 1982, 233 pp., $13.95.
Mr. William F. Buckley, Jr., everybody's favorite conservative—the conservative liberals love to have over for cocktails, the conservative who can make almost any view palatable if only by speaking of it in words no one understands—that Buckley writes novels. This was news a few years back when Saving the Queen, the first of Buckley's four novels, took lovers of fiction by surprise, most of them having suspected that a first novel by a master polemicist would surely be wooden, pedantic, turgid, and boring.
Friends of Mr. Buckley took Saving the Queen to heart, even those who think that conservatives are so shy about s*x that their children all come to life under cabbage patches. Oh, there was the famous scene in Queen when, to save the queen—a British queen but not the current one—American secret agent Blackford Oakes had to go somewhat more energetically into, shall we say, the palace innards. That scene, which scandalized some who expected that when America's best-loved conservative writes a novel it must be G-rated, was, well, a refreshing introduction to the unexpected novelistic whimsy of William F. Buckley, Jr. (By the by, if you can catch Bill Buckley alone, and you are of age and not a prude, you might ask him to tell you the story of David Niven and the publicity blurb for Saving the Queen. It is a story with unusual wit about it.)
Blackford Oakes is a Yalie, as Bill Buckley is a Yalie; he is of the CIA, as Bill Buckley was for a short while of the CIA; and he is awfully well bred and awesomely knowledgeable, as…but the point is clear. He is something of an alter ego to the author, the author's age when the four novels' action occurs. We are with Blackford in the 1950s, during the High Cold War, when commies were bad guys, when Ike was in power; we are in a time of more clear-cut polarities than we know now, and we—the good guys of the West—are locked in a most protracted conflict with the Soviets.
So the four Buckley novels carry us through the adventures of Blackford Oakes, the latest, Marco Polo, If You Can, into the Buckleyesque interpretation of (or rather, fantasy speculation upon) the U-2 flap that gave Nikita Khrushchev a golden chance to embarrass the president of the United States. Or was it all staged by the United States to ease us out of an awkward situation? The book, brand new and thus far the best of Buckley's novels, makes a perfectly delicious case—only three-quarters tongue-in-cheek—for the latter interpretation. You'll get no major plot revelations from me, since everything unfolds so splendidly in the novel. To cheat the reader of the pleasure of discovering the intricacies of Buckley's story would be not only unsporting but unforgivable.
But let me tell you some of the bits and pieces that carry you rapidly through the pages of Marco Polo. We meet not only our old friend Blackford Oakes and his associates and lady friends and buddies and other creations of the author, but also a most amazingly organized and calculating Dwight David Eisenhower and a J. Edgar Hoover who has been removed from the pedestal upon which most conservatives reflexively place him. Ike and Hoover, and for that matter several other real people put to Buckley's uses in the book, are of course wholly shaped to Buckley's needs, and they are employed as playfully for the serious purposes of advancing the plot's logic as is Buckley himself employed playfully in an aside: at one point Blackford Oakes settles back to dip into Up from Liberalism by, of course, William F. Buckley, Jr.
I don't know if Bill Buckley intends to unleash upon us a major roman à clef one of these days. These Blackford Oakes adventures are not that: when they want to make use of an historical personage they simply use him by name and invent for him whatever is needed for the story. But if a long familiarity with the development of novelists is of any use to me, I think I can safely guess that one of these years we should expect Buckley to give us a large book that abandons Oakes and plays consistently off a cast primarily of real people just ever so cleverly disguised.
For now we have the Oakes books and they're swell. Marco Polo, If You Can will please you hugely.
David Brudnoy, a contributing editor of REASON, is a host of a New England-wide radio talk show, critic-at-large of Boston's CBS station, and a syndicated columnist. Copyright © 1982 by David Brudnoy.