Best known for his quick wit, high vocabulary, and extensive political and social commentary, the late William F. Buckley, jr. was a prolific writer. During his lifetime, Buckley published dozens of books, hundreds of columns, and wrote thousands of letters. His writing can be distinguished by its famous rhythmic style which at times can border on lyrical. With a complicated, and at times obscure use of vocabulary, Buckley's writing can seem lofty and too academic for public consumption. Windfall is a welcome exception.
While Buckley did at times publish works of fiction, most of his work was in the field of political analysis and commentary (he was, after all, the founder and long-time editor of National Review). Considered a forefather of the modern American Conservative movement, Buckley was and still is known widely for his political views; but his personal life remains shrouded in mystery. One of the last books he published during his lifetime, Windfall: The End of the Affair, is considered to be his most sober-minded autobiographical work.
At face value, the book appears to be about Buckley’s final sail across the Atlantic Ocean. Full of adventure, personal anecdotes, and a detailed account of his amateur sailing career, upon closer look the book holds reflections on the author’s own life, and all the successes, failures, and friendships that it entails.
Buckley opens his book at the beginning of his preparations to sail across that Atlantic Ocean for a fourth and final time with a small group of his closest friends, as well as his son and only child. During his life, Buckley was an avid sailor. His sailing career began with racing (as the book points out), and then gradually shifted into the more leisurely sport of yachting. The book begins with Buckley recounting his organization of what would be his fourth trans-Atlantic voyage, and what he points out would also likely be his last (Buckley was to become a senior citizen since his 65th birthday would take place during the trip). Buckley points out to his readers that sailing across an ocean in a relatively small vessel requires one to be choosy about the people they select to join them. The wrong person, he writes, could affect the mood of the whole trip for the worse.
Once the voyage gets underway, Buckley uses the trip as a framework on which he interjects his personal musings. The tone throughout the book is conversational, seemingly a shift away from the usual high-minded tone used in his columns and some of his other books. Reading this book makes one feel as if talking to an old friend.
One of the more revealing episodes in the book occurs when he reflects on an opportunity he was given to perform a piece by his favorite composer, Bach. A friend had asked him to play before a large crowd in a concert hall, and Buckley’s hesitation to accept and the personal conflict the proposition instils in him creates one of the most engaging parts of the entire book. It is here that readers are reminded of Buckley’s humanity. The same man who appeared before millions on his television program, Firing Line, who gave speeches to massive groups, and who wrote for an audience larger than any writer could ever hope for was nervous to appear on stage to play music by his favorite composer for even a few minutes. The reader is shown Buckley’s genuine love for music, and his fear of not doing it proper justice in his performance. Buckley, by writing with passion about his love for Bach and his fear of performing under his own high standards, shows us that he is indeed a mortal being after all. His love for music and his humble passion in writing about it is a relate-able part of his book that is absent from many of his other works.
One of the more revealing parts of Windfall happens when Buckley writes about his relationship with his only child, Christopher Buckley. Buckley gives us a glimpse into the relationship between father and son, and all the ebbs and flows that go with it. His willingness to allow his readers a glimpse into his personal life is part of the reason that this book stands out from his others and makes it such a fascinating read.
For those interested in the life of one of the 20th Century’s most influential figures, Windfall is a must read. Filled with insights into the life of National Review’s founder, and chock-full of Buckley trivia (such as the fact he didn’t drink water), Windfall is full of nautical adventure. Masterfully composed, reflective, and wonderfully written, this book is a testament to the talent of one of the world’s greatest minds.