Archive for December 2009

Right Time, Right Place, by Richard Brookhiser

December 13, 2009

The author knows how to write but not when to stop. This isn’t quite fair–rather, his best writing is done in his one-page essays that run monthly in National Review (“City Desk” and “Country Life”). Brookhiser can fit in a single magazine page all the dirty beauty of New York City, which he clearly loves. There are pages in Right Time, Right Place that recall those brilliant short essays, but they are set amid muddy stretches of exposition.

The title is not just a pun. Brookhiser submitted a piece to National Review while a high-school student. Buckley accepted it and made it the cover story. Brookhiser kept the connection as a college intern (he attended Yale, as Buckley had done) and soon got an offer to write for the magazine full-time. He chose to accept rather than to attend Yale Law School. Buckley told him after a few short years that he wanted him to step into his shoes at the magazine.

Buckley became a new father to him, though Brookhiser never explains why his own father faded out after the son joined Buckley at the magazine. After ten years, Buckley left him a short letter to avoid a personal encounter. The letter informed him abruptly that Buckley had changed his mind. There is here a brief tribute to the original, less, exciting man, when Brookhiser describes what happened after receiving the firing lines from Buckley:

“I told my brother and my parents. My father came through. He had retired from Eastman Kodak only a few years earlier. He had never talked to me or, as far as I knew, anyone about his job. He went in the morning and came home at night. I had been to his office a couple times; it was decorated with a picture of an elk in a pond that he had taken on our road trip west. Now he told me that he had once missed a promotion he felt he deserved, which went instead to the son of a director of the company. He told the man who made the pick, and the man who benefited from it, that he believed he was the better man, but that he would do his best in the new order of things regardless. He also said that if I wanted to go to law school, ten years late, he would pay for it. Economists, even those whose systems are mindful of human motivation, can write as if jobs come out of a pot labeled “Economy.” They do, but they get done because people–in my father ‘s generation, men–go to work five days a week and do them. Some of us love our jobs, but many more of us only like them well enough. My father had gone to his job for almost forty years to support himself and his wife and his sons. Now he was offering another share of those earnings (carefully, even penuriously, saved) to me. I was impressed; he was a better man than the idol I had put in his place.” (140)

Buckley’s abrupt dismissal of him came as a blow and a betrayal. Still, Brookhiser admits his executive defects.

Brookhiser somewhat resented the general Catholic atmosphere at the magazine. The prevailing winds at least were Roman. Again, he fails to make a possible connection from his own biography. His father, raised Catholic, married a Protestant over objections from family and Church. In turn, Brookhiser disappointed his own parents by marrying a Jewish woman. For a book about fathers and sons, the author does not discuss the fact that he and his wife have no children. He does describe being stricken with testicular cancer, but the aptness of this affliction passes unremarked.

The later chapters are dull–the mountain has been climbed. The stroll amid the broad sunny uplands is not so bracing.