Minor details on major subjects

Garry Wills offers snapshots of his life and others’

Garry Wills has long been a keen observer of church and state in his many books and magazine pieces. Readers would have good reason to look forward to a memoir about the pantheon of people Wills has interviewed, but “Outside Looking In’’ disappoints.

Much of the book dwells on minor incidents and long-forgotten names. Will anyone but sports fanatics want to read pages about the performance of the Colts football team during the years Wills lived in Baltimore more than four decades ago?

Some of the most compelling writing is found in the introduction, where the author describes his insatiable love of books. As a child he read under the covers with a flashlight, and in prep school he devoured books in the bathroom because it was the only place where lights were on at night. He finished “War and Peace’’ in three days and nights, taking only brief naps.

Wills provides snapshot impressions of public figures he interviewed or dined with, but much of it reads like petty gossip or bragging. Wills lets us know that he has sailed with John Kenneth Galbraith and Walter Cronkite, as if it matters.

In a hodgepodge of themes and subjects the author chronicles his love of classical Greek, his flying to Memphis to report on the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and his impressions of various presidents. He admires Jimmy Carter, writing that “no one else has made such an impact worldwide after leaving the nation’s highest office.’’

In the most poignant chapter, titled “Jack,’’ Wills recalls his love-hate relationship with his father — a fearless boxer, philanderer, businessman, gambler, and racist who had no use for books. After Wills’s mother tired of her husband’s sexual escapades, Jack fled to California with a young waitress and married her. Eventually, he left the waitress and remarried the author’s mom. Still, Wills admired his father’s “infectious sense of fun, and an extraordinary resilience after business setbacks.’’

Wills devotes a chapter each to Studs Terkel, the prolific author of oral history books, and William F. Buckley Jr., founder of National Review, the conservative opinion journal where Wills got his start in journalism.

Terkel died two years ago at age 96 after decades of interviewing people and writing such well-received books as “Working’’ and “Hard Times.’’ Wills remembers riding with Terkel in taxi cabs and admiring his ability to elicit a driver’s life story before arriving at their destination.

Wills recalls Buckley’s love of sailboats and motorbikes and describes the evolution of Buckley’s political beliefs, crediting his friend with doing “much to make conservatism respectable by purging it of racist and fanatical traits.’’ For years, however, Buckley and Wills were estranged. Wills once called Buckley’s close friend Henry Kissinger “a war criminal.’’ The “final break’’ came when Buckley refused to publish a Wills essay stating that there was “no conservative rationale for our ruinous engagement in Vietnam.’’ They reconciled three decades later, shortly before Buckley died.

Wills devotes the final chapter to his beloved wife, Natalie, but the portrait is surprisingly flat. The account of how Wills met his future wife during a flight — she was a flight attendant — is long on facts, but short on feeling.

Although some of the book’s anecdotes are cute, funny, or of passing interest, they do not add up to a compelling or memorable memoir.

Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He can be reached at  

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