While researching for a book I'm writing, I looked at The Unmaking of a Mayor, William F. Buckley's chronicle of his rollicking run for the mayor of New York. It’s one of the great political memoirs of the twentieth century. The year was 1965. Rumors of the death of conservatism were voluminous, the rout of Barry Goldwater the year before by LBJ taken as an end-of-history triumph for Cold War liberalism. The Great Society was coming, the sexual revolution was on, and soon we'd hear of “the death of God.”
The Republican candidate, the dapper John Lindsay, proudly declared a “fusion approach” to politics, which amounted to a few conservative provisions mixed with the liberal steamroller.
That's why Buckley entered the contest. He laid out his plan in a National Review column titled “Mayor, Anyone?” His account of the campaign from start to finish is often hilarious: Should he win, he advised, a safety net should be set up beneath the office windows of the New York Times editors. It is also often infuriating: The press once outright lied about a speech Buckley gave and wouldn't correct the story until he produced a recording of the event. The campaign also gave dismayed conservatives fresh hope, as Buckley ran circles around the hapless politicians and their hack media fans.
The story remains timely, still relevant in its depiction of stale party machines, an incompetent and biased press, and a city on the edge of disorder.
The opening pages of Tara Isabella Burton’s Social Creature threaten a cliché story (“‘You could fall in love,’ says Lavinia, ‘wearing a dress like that’”). But before long the reader is pulled into the glitz and glamour of wealthy Lavinia Williams’s New York circa 2015, where characters take cabs to Coney Island, strip naked, and recite Tennyson’s “Ulysses” at the edge of the ocean (“For my purpose holds / To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths / Of all the western stars, until I die”).
But there is darkness beneath the glamour. Lavinia pulls Louise Wilson, a twenty-nine-year-old writer who works odd jobs to stay afloat, into a world of pulsing lights, cocaine, custom-made perfumes, opera, and sin. She acts as Louise's Virgilian guide—that is, at least halfway. Louise never gets to leave the hell Lavinia leads her into: Unlike Dante, whom Virgil crowns master over himself in Purgatorio (“I crown and miter you over yourself”), Louise finds herself virtually enslaved by her wealthy benefactor and the pleasures and vices of her glittering, Instagrammable underworld. (Louise’s ex-boyfriend, the reason she moved to New York in the first place, notably bears the name of the poet.)
Described by the author as “a super-religious book,” the novel explores the corrosive nature of sin left unresolved, crime without punishment. Through its lush descriptions, twisted human relationships, and dream-like plot, the novel succeeds in reminding us that we are, all of us, “alike in indignity.”
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