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Getting It Right: A Novel Hardcover – January 1, 2003
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This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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From Publishers Weekly
Author, columnist and National Review founder Buckley offers a sentimental bildungsroman about a young man's initiation into the mid-century American conservative movement. In 1956, a 19-year-old Mormon missionary, Woodroe Raynor, is assigned to fieldwork in Austria, near the Hungarian border. He loses his virginity to a Hungarian woman and is wounded as he watches Russian tanks quell the Hungarian uprising. The bullet wound is nothing, however, compared to the psychic pain of learning that his paramour is a Communist sympathizer. Woodroe later attends Princeton and begins working for the John Birch Society. He has a love affair with an Ayn Rand acolyte, leading to some heady epistolary debates about whether Rand or Birch Society founder Robert Welch is better prepared to eradicate Communism. Rand is unmasked (yet again) as a sexually and intellectually manipulative egomaniac, and the wisdom of the National Review and its staff is affirmed regularly. Vivid historical passages about the Cuban missile crisis and the Kennedy assassination, as well as cameo appearances by John Dos Passos and Alan Greenspan, are a welcome diversion from the mostly stilted prose (a sex scene between Rand and a lover is described this way: "Today her lover was being welcomed with synaesthetical concern for all the senses.... But as he lay and later groaned with writhing and release, he brought the full force of his mind to transmuted, voluptarian elation in this physical union..."). Between the self-congratulatory tone and the flat characters, the novel will appeal primarily to Buckley's devoted fans.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
It's become a truism that the groundwork for GOP success since 1980 was laid in the 1950s and in the 1964 Goldwater presidential campaign. Buckley himself was a player then--part of what this historical novel's characters label "the National Review crowd"--but that group is absent here. Instead, Buckley focuses on two of the conservative movement's more controversial elements: the fervently anti-Communist John Birch Society and Ayn Rand's "objectivism." Woodroe (Woody) Raynor witnesses (and is shot in) the 1956 Hungarian Revolution while doing Mormon missionary work across the border in Austria. He returns to attend Princeton and becomes a Birch Society operative on graduation. At the founding meeting of the Young Americans for Freedom (at Buckley's mother's Connecticut estate), Woody meets Leonora Goldstein, an acolyte in "the Collective" surrounding Ayn Rand. Through the eyes of these committed young conservatives, the reader examines Birchers and Randians and witnesses key events: the enrollment of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi, the Cuban missile crisis, JFK's assassination, the Warren Commission's deliberations, the 1964 presidential campaign, and growing U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. In a sense, this novel is "triumphalist" history: Buckley's crowd largely won the 1960s battle for the soul of the Republican Party. Expect his latest novel to appeal most powerfully to readers whose political attitudes match those of National Review. Mary Carroll
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top customer reviews
During this era, Buckley, Russell Kirk, Whitaker Chambers, and others were defining, in the pages of National Review, the parameters of conservatism as we understand it today. In so doing, they strove to establish their breed of conservatism as the dominant ideology of anti-Communism, while such firebrands as Ayn Rand and the John Birch Society's Robert Welch adopted a fiercer, more confrontational demeanor. /Getting it Right/ is Buckley's account of how Rand and Welch estranged themselves from the emerging conservative silent majority. Buckley is fair to both and displays a keen understanding of how Rand and Welch each captivated their respective sects. Presently, Rand's legacy is more enduring and I expect that Buckley's portrayal of Rand as a shrew who may have "created an entire . . . philosophical system to deal with her own psychological problems" will earn this book hysterical reproachment from those who still adopt Rand's "Objectivism" and style themselves Randian heroes. But Buckley has in no sense whatsoever adopted the Aaron Sorkin model of political fiction wherein one makes ideological opponents look silly by putting words in their mouths that they would never speak. Buckley clearly acknowledges Rand's literary brilliance and her gift for rigorous analytical deduction. He uses her personal implosion as an object lesson in how the most studious fidelity to capitalism and freedom cannot yield genuine happiness without a corresponding commitment to the traditional social virtues.
But did this have to be a novel? Not until the final pages will readers develop much affection for the major fictional characters, each of whom serves as little more than a deus ex machina to hurry along the narrative. The author was a major participant in many of the events chronicled, and history would have been better served by a well-documented first-person account than by a half-fictionalization in which Buckley at times clumsily renders himself as a supporting character. The novel's copious citations to National Review editorials also harmonize rather poorly with its literary form. Yet the struggle for the soul of American conservatism does have the character of an epic. The drama reaches its crescendo at the 1964 Republican National Convention when a defiant Barry Goldwater declares, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. . . . Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." By itself, the sentiment was and is beautiful, but Buckley places it in context, and, as always, stands athwart history, yelling Stop.
Note added: lots of angry folks who don't like that he cleaned the movement of Rand and Birch - but he had to! He was right to! Those who wonder who "what would Bill do" now in the movement should read this book.
Buckley's protagonist is Woodroe Raynor, who we first meet as a young Mormon missionary in 1956 in Austria, along the Hungarian border. I must say young Woodroe's mission is unlike any I experienced as an elder. He lives with a young American couple, teaches English to the natives, and builds houses on the side. It could be that Buckley is familiar with more recent LDS humanitarian missions, or he may be thinking of the effort led by Elder Ezra Taft Benson immediately following the second world war, or he could be making up this part of the story out of whole cloth. But it's very unlikely that a 19 year-old elder would have served a non-proselyting mission like this in 1956. Then there's the little manner of his girlfriend, Teresa, who he sleeps with. She is Hungarian, and she draws him into the 1956 Hungarian revolution against the Communist Russian occupiers. Woodroe is shot trying to help refugees escape, and Teresa turns out to be a double agent. This political and sexual betrayal helps make Woodroe a convinced anti-communist.
Woodroe then attends Princeton University where his mentor is professor Theo Romney, a Mormon from Utah who is the only conservative on the history faculty. His hobby is painting from memory as massive mural of the Wasatch mountains. Together they meet the circle around Robert Welch, a wealthy candy manufacturer who founds the fiercely right-wing John Birch Society in 1958. Buckley doesn't display much curiosity about distinctive LDS beliefs. He assumes for the purpose of his narrative that Mormons believe in Jesus and are bound by a code of comprehensive morality, which makes them Christian enough for him. Buckley must have noticed during these years the fervency and numbers of LDS members involved with the John Birch Society. A little later in the novel Woodroe attends a local meeting of the Birchers in Salt Lake, where Ezra Taft Benson is seated on the dais.
Meanwhile a young Jewish woman, Leonora Goldstein, becomes involved with the intimate circle in New York City around Ayn Rand, the novelist and libertarian philosopher. There she witnesses at first hand the sexual intricacies of Rand and her very married lieutenant Nathaniel Branden (later one of the fathers of the "self-esteem" movement.) Buckley is witheringly satirical about the Randoids. He targets their cruelty, self-deception, and intellectual arrogance. (The very title of the novel could be a double-entendre about the romantic entanglements of the various right-wing characters.) The word "creepy" comes up more than once in referring to the Objectivists. It's pretty outrageous material, but
Buckley appends a "Notes" section where he lists the sources for every chapter (when he's not relying on his own recollections.)
Woodroe progresses through the JBS and begins to meet some its more colorful characters. There's Major General Edwin Walker, who tries to seduce Woodroe even as Lee Harvey Oswald fires a shot at Walker through a glass window. Then there's Revilo Oliver, an academic classics genius who spins increasingly elaborate, paranoid conspiracy theories to explain every bad aspect of American life. (Both these men were real people who Buckley came to know.) Woodroe becomes appalled by the racism, meanness, and downright looniness of the Birchers and breaks with them. He writes to Theo Romney:
"Us folks from Utah aren't racists. I never even felt the urge to look down on Jews and Negroes. So many people do. You commented in your course how the Chinese railroad workers were treated when they crossed 'God's country'. That's *our* God, Theo. Other Christians get it almost right. We get it *all* right."
Woodroe goes to work for Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign, which is vividly described. We also meet along the way Jack and Bobby Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, a young Alan Greenspan (who was a Randoid), and other prominent figures from the time. Buckley himself appears as a supporting character. So does this make "Getting It Right" a Norman Mailer ish "nonfiction novel"?
Woodroe meets yet another Mormon, Than Koo, a refugee from Communist terrorism in Vietnam. The climax of the novel comes when "National Review" in 1966, Buckley's hugely influential magazine, publishes a special issue denouncing the JBS as dangerous and deranged in its paranoid analyses of America. The novel ends as Leonora leaves the Objectivists, becomes a Catholic, and becomes engaged to Woodroe, who is leaving to fight in Vietnam. I see a sequel in the works.
Buckley's Mormons are defiantly idealistic, even as they are backsliders who drink and cohabit with their girlfriends. They are tolerant, compassionate, and committed to truth. Although their forceful presence in the JBS suggests they are susceptible to unwise fanaticism. Buckley captures well the feverish intoxication of extremist ideas, of how systematic ideologies take flight from reality. (Buckley seems to imply that some Jewish people has a similar cultural predisposition for Rand's cult.) Buckley himself has always been a model of civilized humanity. He comes across an an emotionally intact, jolly man who is able to successfully integrate faith and reason.
It appears that in recent years Buckley is constructing a fictional narrative history of post-war America in his novels "Nuremberg", "The Redhunter", "Spytime", "Elvis in the Morning", and this volume, which fairly screams "to be continued." For sheer literary value these novels are no threat to the "American chronicle" novels of Buckley's old nemesis, Gore Vidal. Vidal creates deeper characters, more involving plots, and infuses his history with stinging wit. But his political views grow more extreme and paranoid the closer he gets to his own lifetime. Buckley's books radiate sanity and reasonableness and they are pretty funny in their own right. Plus he is arguably the most influential American journalist of the past 50 years. Some may find his books too abstruse for their tastes. Me, I eat 'em up like candy.