By David Beilstein
IN his literary audiobiography Miles Gone By, the late conservative provocateur William F. Buckley Jr., dissects the genesis of his fictional CIA man Blackford Oakes. After praising The Day of The Jackal to his publisher, Buckley’s publisher asked,
“Why don’t you write a novel?”
With typical Buckley perspicacity (in lavish reserve), the Yale alum retorted,
“Why don’t you play a trumpet concerto?”
Soon after, however, Buckley secluded himself in Switzerland, giving way to the parturition of Blackford Oakes, CIA agent — Yale man, a Roman Catholic, who knows if practicing — startlingly handsome and definitively American. In confession, Buckley intimated Blackford Oakes was a rebuke to the ambiguous nature in which the CIA was typically portrayed in movies and media.
Buckley used Three Days Of The Condor to explicate his novelistic aesthetic. Condor, starring Robert Redford, was said by many at the time to waft of the contemporary milieu in America society, during Watergate and the Vietnam War. Buckley, ever a man of definition, said what was more accurate is the movie represented the climate of moonbat intelligentsia. That is to say, Condor represented parts of America, not wholes. Such agitprop were the electric cords running through Condor’s impetus.
Having read Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007 novels and a pinch of John Le Carre, I was pleasantly awakened by Blackford Oakes soon after finishing Buckley’s second novel with Blackford Oakes, Stained Glass. I have finished Buckley’s 1974 Blackford Oakes, novel, Tucker’s Last Stand. In this sublime novel, Blackford Oakes, morally oscillating about U.S. presence in Vietnam, travails to Indochina in 1964 working alongside a tenebrous Special Forces intelligencer (Tucker Montana) to close off insurgent traffic flowing down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Few first rate novelists handle agitprop well. The Blackford Oakes novels, thankfully, rebuke agitprop for realism concerning human nature. Literary agitprop is weak, I think, because a story anchored on propaganda — being didactic — is antithetical to the soil upon which good storytelling germinates. Stories should not be mired in the confessional, but in the reportage of the ontological and anthropological beast known as human beings in a given dramatic, combustible environ. In Old Newspaperman Writes, Ernest Hemingway famously advised the political hodgepodge of Tolstoy’s novels, were the least relevant — the least timeless. Instead, Hemingway observed, it is the humanity of the characters that continues to report on the universal truth of our humanity.
This is where Buckley’s Blackford Oakes novels achieve uniqueness. Though the Blackford Oakes novels are coloured with unique Buckleyisms, they are not conservative counterfeits to the spy genre. These books are not tools to give conservative readers their own propaganda … these novels do not ignore the reality of a complex, divergent world of the repercussions of a human condition mired in sin and misery. Consequently, Buckley’s Oakes novels are revelations rooted in the culture and organic nature of the Central Intelligence Agency during the Cold War.
Mr Blackford Oakes, while a prestigious fan of National Review, a Yale man, and a conservative, is not William F. Buckley, Jr. His moral vision is clouded and his sexual appetite unfulfilled by monogamy. Unlike the cliché inspired by the left (conservatives only see the world in black and white simplicity), the world Blackford Oakes inhabits is multicoloured. It is nuanced, radically, and sometimes no good option waits Oakes within a funnel of international intrigue. Violence is sudden, death final. Women, often times too easy, remove their clothes seductively, whilst hungry agents working hard and playing harder linger.
The difference, then, is Blackford Oakes inhabits real history with real players from that history — real situations, sparked by the ever-duplicitous nature of nations and people. Uniquely, flipping through a Blackford Oakes novel will counter much leftist estimation of people and society, but the novels are not conservative propaganda. They are the reportage of a brilliant mind and creative persona, observing, studiously, a world outside of the author’s own head — intimately relatable to the world all men and women, within diversities, situate themselves.
Thus, the effect is the reader observes a world of pleasures, sins, sacred honours, duty and good intentions, in the context of espionage. William F. Buckley, Jr. puts the reader in a place where they are gripped by ever-present reality, of the consequence of government policy and its unintended after burn. Likewise, the reader views the moral vision of the CIA and sometimes this is good, sometimes bad — but often times, complicated.