The Rake by William F. Buckley, Jr.

Cover of "The Rake: A Novel"
Cover of The Rake: A Novel

Long time readers of this site – yes, both of you, yuk, yuk – will know that I am a big fan of William F. Buckley, Jr. or WFB for short.  I own every book he has written and have read all of them with the exception of the collections of his syndicated columns.

Looking back over his long and prodigious career it is amazing the subjects and genres he has tackled.  From religion in higher education to his own faith; from political controversy to running for office; from a-day-in-the-life memoirs to sailing across the ocean; and from foreign policy to the history of conservatism.

On the fiction side Buckley has been just as prolific and as varied.  He started out with a series of Cold War spy novels that rejected what he perceived as the moral equivalence of the novels of John Le Care and others; and that brought his unique political views and wit to bear on pivotal moments in that period.

Buckley then moved on to various roman a clef type novels outside the espionage genre.  These covered subjects ranging from Joseph McCarthy, CIA Director James Angelton, and Elvis Presley, to the Nuremberg trials and even Ayn Rand.

And his latest novel, The Rake, might be taken for yet another; this time a thinly disguised dig at Bill Clinton.  Here is PWs take on the basic plot:

Handsome, charismatic 1992 Democratic presidential candidate Ruben Castle is a former antiwar protester who now tacks to the center and is adept at taking both sides of an issue. He’s also an inveterate womanizer with a scandal in his closet: a secret marriage to college sweetheart Henrietta, which he didn’t bother terminating before wedding boozy ex-Miss America Priscilla, and which produced a son who now returns to haunt him.

But thinking of The Rake as simply a lightly fictionalized Bill Clinton doesn’t get to the heart of the story.  Sarah Bramwell, writing in WFB’s own National Review, explains:

If you read what the publisher says about this book, and what other reviewers have written, you will hear that The Rake is a novelistic treatment of Bill Clinton. It is, of course, difficult to avoid thinking of Clinton, given Buckley’s penchant for the roman a  clef, not to mention the winkingly worded jacket cover. Indeed, it’s hard to ignore echoes of “Hillary Rodham Clinton” in the name “Reuben Hardwick Castle”; and few Americans could fail to recognize their 42nd president in Reuben as he is about to make love: “His voice took on the habitual hoarseness. ‘You wanting a little loving?'”

For the most part, though, the parallels stop there. Castle marries a beauty queen, volunteers for Vietnam, and achieves no scholarly distinction. In almost every particular he is the antithesis of Bill Clinton. But Buckley does use Clinton’s iconic presence in his readers’ mind to create a shorthand for a character: Castle is a paradigm of the calculating politician and “perpetual office seeker” (to quote Lippmann again), of the kind familiar to us all. Reuben Castle isn’t exactly like Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy, John Kerry, or Al Gore — but they are a lot like him.

I agree.  For more click below.

The Rake is a deceptively simple story.  Those looking for larger political points or deep symbolism will be disappointed for the most part.  As Bramwell concludes, Reuben Castle is simply Buckley’s “take on the political villain.”

And it is a rather understated book.  Although it involves murder, betrayal, and sex it does so without seeming sleazy or gratuitous.  Although it has a mystery at its heart it often lacks the pace of a thriller.  And I think this gets to the question of whether you will like this book or not.  I obviously can’t claim an unbiased opinion as I have been fascinated by, and a fan of, WFB since I was quite young.

Booklist clearly didn’t like it:

In a sort of alternate-history tale of ambition gone astray, young Reuben Castle (read Bill Clinton) is an easy success at everything he sets his sights on, which we are supposed to believe is due to a natural charisma (found nowhere on these pages). While lording over his college campus, he knocks up a girl, marries her in a secret Canadian ceremony, and drops her as soon as she’s out of sight. Then he traipses over to Vietnam, where his conduct, if not cowardly, is certainly questionable, as is his following stint in law school. Years later, as the Democrats are gearing up to topple George Bush Sr., young Senator Castle becomes the early front-runner but for some reason doesn’t bother to think twice about the patently obvious skeletons in his closet primed to topple out and put the kibosh on the whole thing. Buckley certainly has a following as a mystery writer, but this book is designed to appeal more to politicos who get their kicks from C-SPAN than to crime fiction fans. Unfortunately, colorless characters with nonsensical motivations, a minimal plot with a few halfhearted throw-ins, and yawning prose make it doubtful anyone but hard-core fans of Buckley’s fiction will slog through this flat, off-target attempt at a satire-tinged thriller.

I can see where much of this harsh criticism comes from, but I think it is overstated.  First of all, I think the writers expectations are all off.  Obviously fans of WFB are the target audience.  Equally obviously, many of those fans are political junkies.  I also think “satire tinged” is off base.  Sure, Buckley likes to use humor and dry wit, and he certainly seeks to capture the Baby Boomer ethos, but I don’t think satire was his goal.

Secondly, the points about Bill Clinton, nonsensical motivations, and colorless characters are too harsh.  We have already dealt with the Slick Willy part, but the motivations Buckley develops strike me as believable.  I mean, how many times do you read a news story and think: “why did they think they would get away with it?”  If politicians, or anybody else, were truly careful about burying their skeletons then scandal wouldn’t be such a regular occurrence.  Powerful people, and those who have always gotten their way, get used to the power and begin to think that they will never pay a price for their mistakes or wrongdoing.  Heck, average people often fail to think of the repercussions of their actions until they are caught up in them.  Did the Clinton’s think Whitewater would undermine their administration?

I will admit that the characters are not always deeply developed.  The story reads like a black and white sketch rather than a detailed oil painting (if I may use such a metaphor).  But I think the main characters, if not he secondary ones, are well rounded and believable.

The pace is also not that of a thriller as Buckley slowly plays out the history and the tension builds.  It involves more psychological tension than action.  But I think the underlying questions are interesting; if you put yourself in the place of the various central characters and try to imagine what you might do in their place.  Buckley asks the reader to imagine the motivations and decisions – to second guess them and wonder about them – and this creates a sense of mystery that fuels the tension.

And this is where the reader’s preferences play a large role.  If you enjoy Buckley’s style and sense of humor you will enjoy The Rake.  If you are a political junkie you will appreciate the machinations involved in setting up a presidential run.  Being both a fan and a political junkie I fit the target audience.

This isn’t Buckley’s best novel, or one that blows you away, but it was an entertaining and interesting read.  It has a certain quiet strength as a mediation on the role of ambition and power in modern politics and how this effects the lives of those involved.  For me, this was enough to make it worthwhile.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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