In these two recent spy thrillers, William F. Buckley’s CIA-trained alter ego makes his sixth and seventh appearances in a decade to play a winning hand in the high-stakes intrigue surrounding crucial moments in the Cold War. On a secret mission to Cuba (Project Alligator) aimed at exploring with Che Guevara possibilities for easing tensions between the two countries, Blackford Oakes discovers Fidel’s newest presents from Moscow, the infamous Cuban missiles. High Jinx returns to the 1950’s as Oakes’s quest for the source of a murderous intelligence leak leads to English trailers of the Philby variety and, finally, to Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s chief of secret police, plotting to become the next master of the Kremlin. Written with style and zest, never lacking in action and suspense, both books are quality examples of the spy adventure’s capacity to offer intelligent entertainment.

That Oakes is the author’s fictional projection constitutes a minor in-joke in these books. Like Buckley, the CIA man is a Yale graduate with some education in the English public school system. His ripostes to the Guevara’s Marxist verbal thrusts do credit to the editor of National Review. In High Jinx, Buckley even makes President Eisenhower’s National Security Adviser praise McCarthy and His Enemies, further teasing readers with the link between author and character. Such authorial winking at the reader offers more than enough invitation to consider what happens when a man who has spent his adult life attacking and defending ideas ventures at last into fiction. Ideas should matter. But will he produce doctrinaire tracts in the guise of novels or will he infuse, even transcend, the thriller’s formulations by means of an enriching seriousness and clarity of vision?

Actually, neither is exactly the case. Buckley’s fictions are interesting spy thrillers, not weighted down with polemics or heavy reflections. Plot is paramount, and the conventions of the subgenre are deftly executed but not transcended. A reader somehow unfamiliar with the author might be surprised to learn that Buckley has for three decades been championing American conservatism, particularly anti-Communism. For similar reasons, some who cannot abide the author’s political philosophy can be found confessing in print to having enjoyed these novels (and hinting that the author should stick to fiction). And, perhaps, some of his admirers may miss in these books the intellectual daring they relish in a man who will defy fashion to call things by their right names.

The reasons for all these responses have, I suspect, much to do with the force of generic conventions. It is not that Buckley excludes or softens in the novels the unwavering opposition to Communism one finds in his editorial work. However, in the spy novel, one more or less expects the Reds to be villains. In a newspaper piece or television debate, Buckley is controversial (refreshing or infuriating, depending on your outlook) when he argues with customary lucidity and wit that the Soviet Union is in point of fact an evil empire. In a spy novel, the same view will likely pass as a given of the form, unless the author underscores the point with a heavy hand (and Buckley is a better storyteller than to do that).

Buckley’s views do, of course, make a difference in these novels, but in ways that strengthen the inherited conventions, specifically the traditional dichotomy of heroes and villains. The Oakes novels stand, thus, in polar opposition to the books of John Le Carré, who has won praise for innovation and seriousness because he depicts a moral equivalence between the agents (and, by extension, the purposes) of East and West (thereby replacing a convention of adventure tales with a newly hardened orthodoxy of despairing intellectuals). For Buckley and for Oakes, in contrast, there exists no such moral obtuseness masquerading as a higher awareness.

The agents of the Kremlin may, like Boris Bolgin, be human enough—fearful of a Beria, envious of the West, or partly deaf to the propaganda of the Party; but they represent a system that seeks to enslave more of the world. Oakes’s adventures are not without their moral ambiguities and choices of the lesser evil; but these moments do not dissolve in a morass of guilt the larger differences between the two sides—one offering a decent prospect of independence and prosperity, the other only poverty and gulags. Thus for Oakes there is no “cold” to come in from, no chilling moral wasteland to be escaped. With youthful ardor, Blackford Oakes enjoys the battles. Paradoxically, then, Buckley’s clarity of vision about international realities makes Oakes a rather old-fashioned hero whose courage and skill make the plot formulas produce typically satisfying conclusions.

The exploits of Blackford Oakes continue to be well-done genre pieces, entertainments with verve and brains behind them. That should be enough to recommend the books. Some readers will find an additional satisfaction in the novels’ unembarrassed adherence to the older conventions of self-confidence, a welcome change from the formulas of negation marking so many of our perceptions of ourselves and the world (in and out of fiction) for 20 years. What more fitting bonus could we expect from someone who has spent over a quarter of a century fighting Western failure of nerve?


[See You Later Alligator and High Jinx, by William F. Buckley Jr. (Garden City, New York: Doubleday) $16.95]