Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Book Review: The Relic Master, by Christopher Buckley (2015)

Cover of The Relic Master, by Christopher Buckley, 2015.

Christopher Buckley, 2015.
Christopher Buckley is most well-known for his satirical novels that poke fun at contemporary politics. His latest novel, The Relic Master, released in December of 2015, is set in the Holy Roman Empire of the 16th century. So, yes, it’s a bit of a change of pace for Buckley. But The Relic Master is a very successful change of pace, and the erudite wit that readers expect from Buckley is still to be found in generous quantities. 

The relic master in question is named Dismas, and he works for two different patrons, Frederick the Wise of Saxony, and Albrecht, the Archbishop of Mainz. Dismas travels far and wide searching for holy relics, which can be anything associated with saints or early Christian martyrs. And I do mean anything. The novel opens in 1517, with Dismas attending a relic fair in Basel. One vendor offers, “…the tongue (entire) of St. Anthony of Padua; an ampulla of the Virgin’s breast milk; a stone from the scala santa, the steps of Pilate’s palace; a few pieces of straw from the sacra incunabulum, the holy manger in Bethlehem; and shavings from the chains of St. Peter. A suspiciously vast array of goods.” (p.7)

People paid money to venerate these relics, and in return, they received time off from their time spent in purgatory after death. One of the funnier scenes in The Relic Master is when Albrecht and Friar Tetzel figure out how many years in purgatory each of the relics is worth. This practice was known as selling indulgences, and it was one of the main reasons why Martin Luther split from the Catholic Church. (Luther is a cause of much consternation throughout The Relic Master.

After losing all of his savings, Dismas decides to take advantage of the Archbishop of Mainz’s ravenous desire to own the burial shroud of Christ, and he enlists his good friend, the artist Albrecht Durer, to help him create a fake shroud. To say more about the plot would give too much away, and you probably know by this point in the review if the book sounds interesting or not. 

Buckley creates many vivid characters in The Relic Master, some of them based in history, others not. Dismas’ love interest in the book is Magda, a beautiful woman who has a strong background in apothecary, which comes in handy many times. My favorite minor character in the book was Rostang, a chamberlain with a verbal tic who has many funny lines. And in Dismas, Buckley has created a compelling lead character to follow through the story. Dismas has two of my favorite lines from the book:

“Witches cannot bear the touch of the crucified Jesus. Thank God for science.” (p.151) 

“Let me explain Christianity to you. Pilgrims make pilgrimages to atone. Do you think people walk hundreds of miles to grovel before relics because they feel wonderful about themselves? No. They do it because they think otherwise they will go to Hell.” (p.221, Dismas to Durer)

Throughout The Relic Master Buckley does an excellent job of giving the reader the necessary historical context, but it never feels dry or dull. The Relic Master is another highly entertaining work from one of our funniest writers.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Book Review: Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography, by William F. Buckley, Jr. (2004)

Cover of Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography, by William F. Buckley, Jr., 2004. Yes, that's my shelf reserved for books by William F. Buckley and his son Christopher Buckley. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

William F. Buckley, around the time Miles Gone By was published.
William F. Buckley, Jr. never wrote a conventional autobiography. The closest he came was his 2004 book Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography, in which he collects his favorite writings that are about him personally. Miles Gone By is a fantastic book, and it’s an essential read for anyone who is interested in learning more about Buckley’s life. Despite Buckley’s reputation as one of the main intellectuals behind the modern American conservative movement, politics do not play a large part in Miles Gone By. Miles Gone By is really about the man behind the politics, and partisans of either stripe can enjoy Buckley’s wit, joie de vivre, impressive vocabulary, and generous spirit, all of which are on full display. 

True to Buckley’s professed list of his joys in life, the section on sailing is the longest one in the book. Buckley’s passion for sailing comes through clearly on every page. It’s kind of amazing that this multi-hyphenate of a man was able to take the time to unwind and actually take a vacation.

Buckley was well known for being generous to his friends, and there are numerous examples of this throughout Miles Gone By, especially in a section entitled “Ten Friends” where Buckley describes briefly the first time he met ten famous friends. I think only William F. Buckley could name David Niven, Ronald Reagan, Tom Wolfe, Roger Moore, and John Kenneth Galbraith among his closest friends. Buckley was also well known for his finely penned obituaries, which he crafted for his magazine National Review, and there are some superb examples of those included in Miles Gone By as well.

Throughout Miles Gone By, I was struck by what a rich and full life William F. Buckley lived. He was truly a renaissance man. There’s an essay about Buckley playing a Bach concerto with a symphony orchestra. There’s an essay about Buckley descending down to the Titanic in the tiny French submarine Nautile, at a time when he was one of only about one hundred people in the world to have seen the wreck. There’s an excerpt from Buckley’s book The Unmaking of a Mayor, which chronicled his unsuccessful run for mayor of New York City in 1965. One of Buckley’s greatest quips was when someone asked him what he would do if he won the election. His response? “Demand a recount.” 

“My Own Secret Right-Wing Conspiracy” is a very entertaining essay about Buckley’s involvement in the John T. Gaty Trust. John T. Gaty was a wealthy Republican from Wichita, Kansas, who set up a trust fund to distribute part of his estate to organizations that were politically conservative. Gaty named some of the most prominent Republicans in the country as the trustees of his trust. That list included Buckley, Barry Goldwater, John Tower, Strom Thurmond, Edgar Eisenhower, Dwight’s more conservative brother, and J. Edgar Hoover. The trust began in 1967, and part of the stipulation of the trust was that the trustees would meet in person in Wichita to vote on how to allocate the funds. Amazingly enough, for seven years, everyone attended in person. (Hoover withdrew from the trust before the first meeting, as he made it a practice to not accept any trusteeships.) Buckley contends that the Gaty Trust played a key role in helping the conservative movement spread, as the trustees allocated a considerable amount of money to different organizations. 

My one criticism of Miles Gone By is that Buckley doesn’t always tell us where the pieces are from. Is this an article he wrote for a magazine? Does it come from a book of his essays? Is it something new he wrote just for the book? But that’s a small quibble for such a delightful book.

William F. Buckley was, first and foremost, a writer, and Miles Gone By proves that he was a damn good one. One of my favorite quotes from the book is this one: “Art of any sort is very, very serious business: that which is sublime can’t be anything less.” (p.16)