I've read many of Garry Wills' books and articles over the years, finding compatible his mix of erudition and clear writing. I especially liked his book on Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address," in which he explored the rhetorical sources of the great president's work. Another favorite was his small biography of St. Augustine. However, I was disappointed by later works on the Gospels and Jesus' life. These books, although showing Wills' deep learning and strong Catholic faith, I found difficult to read. Whether Wills' talent to keep me absorbed in difficult material had faltered or whether my concentration abilities had declined I cannot say with certainty; probably a bit of both.
One day, I heard Wills interviewed on "The Bob Edwards Show" about his new book, "Outside Looking In, Adventures of an Observer." Wills was captivating in discussing his memoir, based on his reminisces of characters he had encountered during his dual life as a journalist and academic. Wills claimed himself an outsider because he was an academic doing magazine journalism for Esquire's Harold Hayes and the National Review's William F. Buckley and a journalist in the academic world of Northwestern and other schools. Despite his high success in both realms, he didn't really feel like he was really a "member" of each guild. While a a strong Catholic, learned in classic Greek, who recites the rosary every day, Wills also feels apart from the Catholic faith, in opposition to papal doctrines, which he discounts with deep historical knowledge.
The Wills interview made me want to read the book. I searched for it in a Borders in San Francisco, but it was absent from the bio section, although a computer search claimed it was in the store. Then, I found it in my familiar neighborhood Borders. At first I resisted, the went ahead and bought it, one of the few books I've purchased in several months, finding my library excellent in offering new books.
I consumed the somewhat slight book in a couple of days. Like recent memoirs of Larry McMurtry, the Wills' book shows evidence of quick writing and superficiality, yet that very lightness makes it entertaining. Wills encounters a diverse cast of characters, from Jack Ruby to obscure MLK lieutenant James Bevel, to Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, James Hoffa, and others. The book gives a quick and accessible history of political and literary culture from the 1960s through today. The most vivid portrait is of William F. Buckley, showing his zany energy and charm. Also captivating is Wills' account of his relationship with his wife Natalie. "Outside Looking In" was like a letter from an old friend, with whom I share a similar outlook. Yes, I understood perfectly Wills' frequent feeling of being "Outside Looking In."