The eleven Blackford Oakes spy novels by William F. Buckley Jr. are a significant part of his oeuvre and deserve consideration when discussing his life. What better way, then, to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of Buckley’s passing than by introducing his protagonist, the CIA’s Blackford Oakes?
William F. Buckley Jr’s. venture into fiction writing, at the age of fifty, came about during a casual lunch in November 1974 in the form of what Buckley calls a “mischievous suggestion” by Samuel Vaughan, who was then editor at Doubleday, that Buckley, after expressing admiration for Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, write a novel. Vaughan offered a contract the next day, and Buckley headed to Switzerland where, writing about 1,500 words a day for six weeks in January and February, he completed the draft of a thriller called Saving the Queen that would hit the bookstores a year later. It was the first of seven consecutive best sellers: Stained Glass (1978)—which won an American Book Award in the suspense category; Who’s On First (1980); Marco Polo, If You Can (1982); The Story of Henri Tod (1983); See You Later Alligator (1985); and High Jinx (1986). They were followed by the highly popular Mongoose, R.I.P. (1987); Tucker’s Last Stand (1990); A Very Private Plot (1995); and Last Call for Blackford Oakes (2005).
Buckley and three well-established novelists—John le Carré, Robert Ludlum, and Helen MacInnes—were responsible for the top-selling spy fiction for ten years, according to Karen Hinckley and Barbara Hinckley in their American Best Sellers: A Reader’s Guide to Popular Fiction. “Readers of a William Buckley spy novel already know CIA agent Blackford Oakes,” the Hinckley sisters write. “They know what to expect from the author’s wit and can look forward to another imaginary conversation between presidents, foreign-policy advisors, and other famous people. The predictability is deliberate in these cases and a large part of the books’ appeal.”
The success also is due to the perspective Buckley offered his readers. Buckley arrived at his chalet in the winter of 1975 determined to “celebrate the Cold War” by filling a gap he perceived in the literature. He was single-minded about his intention to avoid “the kind of ambiguity” prevalent in the literature. “At some dramatic moment,” Buckley explains in an essay about the origin of the Blackford Oakes, “there is the conversation or the moment of reflection in which the reader is asked to contemplate the difficulty in asserting that there is a qualitative difference between Them and Us.” Buckley, however, was unambiguous about the players in the struggle of good versus evil and committed what he called “literary iconoclasm” by “resolv[ing] that the good guys would be—the Americans.”
The leading good guy is Blackford Oakes himself, “born” on December 7, 1925, in Yellow Springs, Ohio. His father is a fighter jet salesman and divorced from his mother, who is remarried to a wealthy, knighted Brit and living in London. His childhood hero is Charles Lindbergh, his father’s best friend, and he spends summers as a teenager at a camp in Maine. He attended Scarsdale High School in New York and was a decorated Air Force pilot in WWII, before he arrives as a fictional character during his final year at Yale, when he meets “his querencia”—Sally Partridge, a Smith graduate from Connecticut writing her doctoral dissertation on Jane Austen.
Graduating magna cum laude with the Yale Class of 1951, member of the swimming team, fluent in French and capable in Latin, highly competent in mathematics and theoretical physics with a phenomenal memory, he is recruited into the CIA as a deep-cover spy. Although Oakes’s hiring process is similar to Buckley’s—who himself spent nine months in covert activity with the CIA—the character is not the novelist’s alter ego. While Oakes briefly attends a British boarding school, Greyburn, as did Buckley at St. John’s, Beaumont, and both are adept at sailing, after Yale their career paths could not have been more different. Oakes spends thirty-six years in the CIA, rising to Director of Operations in Last Call for Blackford Oakes, which takes place during Reagan’s final year in office.
In novels where the good guys are the Americans, it makes sense that Oakes is “distinctively American” (original emphasis here and elsewhere). Oakes is self-confident, witty, curious, enterprising, tactful, and courteous, with “a certain worldliness that is neither bookish nor in any sense of the word anti-intellectual.” Like his crew-neck sweater and khakis, Oakes’s beliefs—Judeo-Christian predilections and the ideals of his country—fit him well. The perfect male-model height at six foot one, Oakes also is “startlingly handsome.” According to the omniscient narrator in Stained Glass,
the ladies loved his stunning good looks, his fair hair and inquisitive blue eyes, and easy manner; the men were taken by his slouchy informality, which managed just the necessary ration of deference owed by the young to their elders, without any suggestion of sycophancy, or any presumptive commitment to the bizarre notion that because he was young, he was any less competent, in his own disciplines, than they in theirs. Blackford had the American republican’s innate aversion to servility. Even as a schoolboy at Greyburn he would say ‘sir’ once, to confirm his understanding of an axiomatic hierarchy. But he would never repeat the word in the same conversation. At age sixteen he got into serious trouble for a libertine application of his code. At twenty-six his amiable self-assurance set him slightly apart: the young man, bright, inquisitive, courteous … [original ellipsis] to whom, however, condescension would have been inconceivable.
As for his politics, “[Oakes is] libertarian,” Buckley explains in a 1996 interview, “only in the sense that he’s generally antistatist. He reads National Review. He is conservative in the sense that he thinks the values of the West are worth a nuclear deterrent, and devotes his life to corollary propositions … I can’t remember that in any of the books I had him simply expatiate in general on any political policies. These aren’t political books in the sense that National Review is a political magazine.” Oakes, moreover, does not immerse himself in the literature of the Cold War and is, as his oldest friend and fellow spy Anthony Trust understands, “content simply to know that there were the bad guys and the good guys, and that nit-picking about the good guys didn’t make the bad guys less bad, that the world was going through an ideological ordeal concerning which he intended to inform himself, and that events had conspired to give him an anonymous role in the struggle.” Oakes, however, is well-read and always has some reading material with him. He sprinkles into his conversations—to make a point and not to impress—allusions to great works in the Western tradition, as well as to countless titles in American literature.
The point of the Blackford Oakes novels is that the world of espionage and counterespionage is what Buckley calls a “moral art,” an idea captured again by the omniscient narrator in Saving the Queen: “We might in secure conscience lie and steal in order to secure the escape of human beings from misery and death: Stalin had no right to lie and steal in order to bring misery and death to others. Yet, viewed without paradigmatic moral coordinates, simpletons would say simply: Both sides lied and cheated—a plague on both your houses.”
And the American doing the right thing for the good guys in the plot-driven Cold War fiction by William F. Buckley Jr. is worth getting to know—if for no other reason than this: “I made Blackford Oakes such a shining perfection to irritate, infuriate the critics,” Buckley states in a 1985 interview. “And I scored!”
Buckley died February 27, 2008.
William F. Meehan III is editor of William F. Buckley Jr.: A Bibliography (ISI Books, 2002) and Conversations with William F. Buckley Jr. (University Press of Mississippi, 2009). He also, in 2010–2012, directed the cataloging of Buckley’s personal library.