Christopher Buckley’s new novel “The Relic Master” sends up Catholicism, religious relics and art fakery, among other burning 16th century issues.
“The Relic Master”
by Christopher Buckley
Simon & Schuster, 400 pp., $26.95
Christopher Buckley is one of America’s wiliest satirists. I’m not just saying that because of the index entry in his collection of essays, “Wry Martinis,” that reads, “Book reviewers, best people on earth, 1-314.”
Over the years Buckley has turned his wickedly funny attention to such topics as White House sexual high jinks, Washington lobbyists, U.S. policy in the Middle East, and UFO believers.
Lately, Buckley has found that making fun of politics and current affairs is too much like shooting fish in a barrel. You just can’t make up anything better than the morning’s headlines.
His solution? A Wayback Machine to Europe in the 16th century. No shortage of targets there. You’ve got your Roman Catholic Church, rife with corruption and panicked over Martin Luther, whose objection to that corruption is about to inspire the Reformation. The petty rivalries between royals. And a booming trade in religious relics, most of them blatant fakes.
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Enter our hero: Dismas, a dealer in relics that are sometimes, occasionally, genuine.
Many historical figures dot the book’s landscape. One is the brilliant painter Albrecht Dürer, who here is Dismas’ best friend and a cynical foil to Dismas’ sunnier outlook. Together, they set the book’s plot in motion, by faking Jesus’ burial shroud, then selling it to the relic-crazy and greedy Archbishop of Mainz.
Dürer creates a masterpiece, except that he can’t resist a tiny addition that accidentally exposes its spurious nature. As penance, the Archbishop forces the pair to make a perilous journey from Mainz to distant Savoy. Their mission: steal the real Shroud.
No, really, this is the real one. Honest. Dismas knew it as the Shroud of Chambéry; we call it the Shroud of Turin.
Buckley comes by his right to satirize politics honestly: His father was conservative columnist William F. Buckley. [ The same is true for his right to talk about the Church: The author was raised and educated as a Catholic. Buckley’s stake on religion makes “The Relic Master” a witty, deft and often surprisingly big-hearted pleasure.