Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Garry Wills Outside Looking In: Adventures of an Outsider

Anyone who knows me knows that I've been a big fan of Garry Wills since 1976, when in one summer I read Bare Ruined Choirs (aloud with C) and Nixon Agonistes. Since then I have continued to enjoy a steady stream of books from Wills on a wide variety of topics: St. Augustine, Shakespeare's MacBeth, Jefferson, Henry Adams, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Lincoln, Venice, and so on. However, in this book, Wills, similar to a part of his earlier Confessions of a Conservative, brings himself directly into view. But not as the sole figure in a frame, but always with someone else. In some cases, we meet rather scheming and deluded preachers, in others, the opera star Beverly Sills and her family, and in others contemporary politicians like Hillary Clinton (whom Wills speaks fondly of). Wills has met this quite varied and interesting collection of persons by starting out as a "book worm". His father paid him not to read for a week and Wills took his winnings out and bought a new book. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Wills is that while he received a Jesuit education topped off by a Yale doctorate in classics, he got his real start writing for magazines, first National Review (he was "discovered" by William F. Buckley), and then Esquire. Mixing these two callings, academic and journalistic, made Wills a compelling writer and not just a brainy writer.

Wills's portraits of his friends Beverly Sills, Studs Terkel, and others can be quite touching. He is quite fair to Richard Nixon, whom he credits as the politician who provided the most interesting answer to his question about favorite books. But the two most interesting subjects are Bill Buckley and Wills’s wife Natalie. Buckley and Wills had a long falling out over the Viet Nam war, but they eventually reconciled through the good offices of one of Buckley’s sisters. Wills provides a respectful and fascinating portrait of Buckley. As for his wife Natalie, Wills struck up a conversation over a nerdy book he was reading (Bergson) on a flight to NYC to meet Buckley and on which she worked a stewardess. They have been together since then, with her serving as his first draft reader—lucky her. No, really, lucky her!

For me this was fun glance into the behind-the-scenes world of one of my favorite writers. For me, it was like hearing a special guest tell tales from an interesting life, and an interesting life it has been, and I hope will continue to be for some time, for this book worm Garry Wills.