Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Relic Master

Christopher Buckley is a rather common name. But not when it is associated with someone who has now published 17 books and is the son of William F. Buckley Jr., the longtime publisher of the magazine 'National Review' and one who is considered to have given rise to the Conservative Party.

William F. Buckley Jr. passed away in 2008 at the age of 82. He was known for his perfect, plummy diction-despite not being British-and as the host of 'Firing Line' on PBS was a pure delight to just listen to, if not always agree with. He was at his best when he was taking on his bete-noire Gore Vidal, one televised encounter of which nearly resulted in two men in suits rolling around on the studio floor trading punches. Oh, what could have been!

William F. Buckley ran for mayor of NYC once and famously replied he would demand a recount if he were to be elected. It is doubtful Donald Trump would ask for a review of the votes he is likely to get running for president. Buckley pere would also cringe at the hijacking of the Conservative Party by talk radio hosts and a Bible carrying senator from Texas. But, we're not here to talk politics.

Christopher is like Rosanne Cash: the offspring of a famous father, but hardly overshadowed by it. Each has gone on and matured into their own version of themselves. It doesn't always happen that way.

And like his father he possess a flair for vocabulary, Latin and razor blade wit. Two of Christopher's utterances will forever be in my memory: what Dorothy Parker said of the study body at Bennington College, and who James Carville's parents were. Details to follow.

Needing something to read at night and being a tad tired of spy novels, I took a chance on Mr. Buckley's latest book, 'The Relic Master.' I only read a small summary of it either in the NYT or the WSJ, and was intrigued. I had already read what I guess was pre-publication publicity of sorts in the WSJ when Christopher wrote an op-ed style piece saying that American politics was too self-satirizing at this point to take on as a subject anymore.

And of course he's right. There are TV shows which have not had as many episodes as the debates of both parties so far. And there are shows that while meant to be funny, cannot match the debates for humor, satire, and outright belly-laughs. No matter who you are watching. But I digress.

So, if not America in the 21st century, do a take on the Middle Ages. The result is 'The Relic Master' a book whose cover alone should make it a best-seller, but probably won't.

It is a handsome book, even before you open it. The buff color of the dust jacket and the monk-like lettering of the title are attractive. The ragged-right pages also give the volume a nice classic touch. I had a cousin who once had a printing outfit on Hudson Street, Lynn Art,  whose main work came from producing book covers. He is no longer in business, but I'd like to think he could have had something to do with this one. The cover is suitable for framing.

Of course, judging a book by its cover is something we've been warned about since childhood, but this book, even on reading it, has appeal.

There are no blurbs on the back cover from other authors sucking up to Mr. Buckley, hoping he'll return the favor. The requisite author photo is on the back flap, and shows Mr. Buckley to have grown a bit of facial hair into a small, neat beard. A mistake I think. He now looks more like a magician than an author who has a perpetual twinkle in his eye.

The beard might be an attempt to somewhat hid the resemblance to his father. But he really doesn't need it. I've seen a photo of him with his father sailing, and the man has tattoos! He could easily start downing shots in a Williamsburg bar and start picking us babes, if so inclined.

William F. Buckley Jr. was a devout Catholic. I have no doubt Christopher was raised as a Catholic, but might now be a lapsed one, or not. It doesn't matter. He knows something of the subject. As a kid I was surrounded by playmates who were Catholic. I was not.

My mother was Catholic, my father Greek Orthodox, my baptismal rite. And while neither parent seemed too swayed or practiced in either religion, in my formative years I was sent to Episcopal Sunday school nearby. I should have been on the path to becoming a theologian, but probably got sidetracked by becoming a New York Ranger fan at an equally early age. Madison Square Garden was the cathedral.

Not really feeling too grounded in religion, I borrowed from those around me. When I heard they were giving up something  for Lent, I too gave up something, chewing gum. What I wasn't told was that after Easter and Lent was over you could go back and take up what you gave up. Thus, under-informed, I gave up chewing gum forever.  I probably had more pocket change than those around me after that.

'The Relic Master' is Mr. Buckley's story of the pursuit of the burial cloth used to wrap Jesus after the crucifixion. The Shroud of Turin is considered by many to be this piece of cloth. It has a great history and holds a great deal of reverence in both the Catholic and Protestant churches. There are also those who disclaim its authenticity, but we're not here for that.

Dismas is the Relic Master, a person who scours the continent for bones and souvenirs of saints and other dead religious notables to be sold to various bishops and cardinals to later be presented for sale to peasants as a way to buy their way out of their sins and gain entry into heaven. Chop off the time in purgatory. You have no idea what a toe is worth in time spent out of purgatory until you read this book. This part of book is political, because this process is an early take on current campaign fundraisers.

A good many relics are fakes! No surprise there. Money and relief from Purgatory is after all involved. It is just like the Mark Rothko's and Jackson Pollack's  that have been found to have turned out by a guy in a Queens garage. There can be several iterations of a bone. Even a fishing vessel said to be Saint Peter's can be constructed long after the Apostle's nets were pulled in. There are forensics detection methods, even then.

The book is populated by people who really did live in the early part of the 16th century in medieval Europe. The inside of the book's covers shows a nice map of that European era. The exploits of these people is why the book is in the fiction section.

There are also those who may or may not have lived in the era. There is a distinct Bernie-Madoff character, Master Bernhardt, who Dismas has entrusted his considerable relic business royalties to. Dismas brags to others that, "the man is a genius. Give him Guldens, he turns them into ducats, and the ducats into diamonds. He has quadrupled my money!"

Since Charles Ponzi had yet appear, it was not labeled a Ponzi Scheme. But the letdown is the same. Dismas's fortune falls to this character.

The authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, as mentioned, is itself surrounded in debate. Mr. Buckley offers his own version of how the Shroud was created. And who is to say the book doesn't offer a plausible explanation of the Shroud's provenance? It is almost like Mr. Buckley has offered a historical fiction version of who did Judge Crater in, as Peter Quinn did in 'The Man Who Never Returned.' Mr Quinn has described himself as a "lapsed historian." Perhaps Mr. Buckley has lapsed on a few fronts. No matter.

Dismas meets up with the painter Durer, and together, after some setbacks of incarceration for Master Dismas, embark on a journey though the castled countryside to steal what is considered to be the true burial cloth of the Lord Jesus Christ.

On their way to doing this, they enlist an array of three free lance soldiers with distinctive names, Cunrat, Nutker and Unks. Here, Mr. Buckley shows how you might be able to win at Scrabble if the game allowed use of proper names. Rule changes are possible.

Also joining this party is Magda, a beautiful Gypsy who is later disguised as nun, and they as monks. Pretending to be clergy going through the dangerous countryside is presumed safer. And to a point, it is.

Dismas, Durer and Magda resemble Bob Hope and Bing Crosby meeting Dorothy Lamour in one of the road pictures they made. The dialogue between Dismas and Durer invokes the banter between Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin in 'Midnight Run,' only without the handcuffs.

There is mention of sex, but no real description of it. A herbal medicine does play a part in creating a very early version of Viagra that one of the soldiers takes in order to restore his confidence. It works only too well, but he doesn't seek medical attention after four hours. He merely exhausts himself in a house of ill-repute. That was after all when the ED condition first befalls him. He did however drink a good deal before engaging.

There is violence with crossbows and daggers, with blood being spilled. People and horses do get whacked. If made into a movie, Parental Caution would surely get attached. But I couldn't help reading the book to myself as if it were a fairy tale, imagining each short chapter unfolding as if they were serial adventures on the 'Rocky and Bullwinkle Show's Fractured Fairy Tales' segment with Edward Everett Horton supplying the voice-over. If the man were still alive, he could have been called on to do the audio book. I miss that voice.

And like Christopher's father, who when he passed away was described as a sesquipedalian (Latin for foot and half long) in at least two obituaries, Christopher can also use some words that send you to a the dictionary. But usually the context helps you through it. Nevertheless, learning words like jocosity, pursuivants, cranequin, catarrh and equipages can only help your intellectual standing in mixed company.

There is some foul language used in the book, generally in the dialog between Dismas and Durer. But it is historically accurate. I looked it up. The OED tells us the word fuck is early 16th century, right on for the boys. Cocksucker would I assume also be in use by then.

Christopher does show off his Latin knowledge, but not to excess, and not to make you feel second rate. After all, I'm sure he was expensively schooled and made to endure translating Ovid for at least one semester. You should show off what you know.

The ending falls a little flat, and does come up too abruptly, but Dismas and Durer were a pair. Who got the girl? Hope, Crosby, or no one? You're going to have to read 'The Relic Master' to find out.

Oh, the taglines for the two things I'm always indebted to Christopher Buckley for saying that I would remind him of if I ever met him...?
  • You have to remember what Dorothy Parker said of the women of Bennington college: if they were laid end-to-end, she wouldn't be at all surprised.
  • James Carville was conceived during the love scene in the movie 'Deliverance.'

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