Despite his claims to the contrary, the author whose sardonic wit lit up the tobacco industry in the 1994 novel Thank You For Smoking may not have left political satire. He’s simply turned back the clock a few years to when the bounty hunting was good and the tomfoolery was easy.
Christopher Buckley, the heir of William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of National Review and the “St. Paul of the conservative movement,” has spent the past four decades crafting a flourishing career from the absurdities of American politics. But the Trump administration shot its snarky messenger. Buckley claims that the “self-satirization” of American politics sent him running wounded into the arms of—historical fiction.
The Judge Hunter, Buckley’s second historical novel, romps through early colonial New England in a comic quest to bring law and order to New England. Published in May, The Judge Hunter is a fun and punchy sock in the nose to both Old and New England’s histories, with their tendencies to dignify a North American settlement that began in utopianism and ended in wars.
The plot is classic Buckley. Since his best satires of the 1990s, Buckley has made a career out of parading buffoons through various political nightmares in contemporary America. The tobacco spokesman Nick Naylor in Thank You for Smoking is the quintessential Buckley narrator: a questionable character, but with the world so set against him, it’s impossible not to feel a twinge of sympathy, and then to laugh at the absurdity of feeling for someone who’s so darn messed up. He’s sad and side-splitting at the same time.
Buckley’s 1999 novel Little Green Men took the same approach from a wider angle. It’s one long laugh at the green (read: greedy) monsters in DC who lead a national citizenry that will believe in anything, even UFOs.
The Judge Hunter introduces a new Naylor: Balthasar de St. Michel, an unemployed young Englishman, in the middle of a social call to his brother-in-law, who to his great good fortune happens to be the estimable Samuel Pepys, Clerk of the Acts in the British Navy, busy establishing his legacy as the greatest diarist of the English language. Perhaps “Brother Sam” can make some inquiries to find “Brother Balty” a comfy political position to pad his (rather threadbare, at the moment) pockets?
Brother Sam is not impressed, and he devises a plan to ship his half-French and fully incompetent brother-in-law on a “mission” to New England. Balty, as a prodigious pest, is perfectly suited to hunt down two judges who escaped to the colonies after they voted for the beheading of Charles I. Accusing a few uppity Puritans of harboring traitors is just the sort of badgering that will suit Balty perfectly—and get him out of Pepys’s way.
Balty washes up in New England in the expected storm of nausea and confusion, and in the next 24 hours, he proceeds to get drunk, lost, and blamed for arson of Boston’s mint. Things only get worse as he finds Puritan culture not at all to his liking (surprise): “Toleration’s not really your thing, is it?” he asks Governor Endecott of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. “Obedience is our ‘thing,’ Mr. St. Michel,” Endecott replies, looking “like a man straining at a difficult stool,” as the ever tactful Buckley comments.
Balty’s mission becomes more and more opaque after he finally tracks down Colonel Hiram Huncks, his contact in New England. Huncks’s shady dealings make him wonder: Does England want war with Holland so they can take over Dutch territory in the New World? Balty, true to form, isn’t sure. But as the two visit various New England notaries—Endecott, John Winthrop the Younger, Peter Stuyvesant, Reverend John Davenport—it becomes clear that a storm is blowing into the colonies, and soon.
Let’s just say the subplot is historically relevant. And that Balty makes a lot of observations about Breuckelen, the island of Manhatoes, and New … Amsterdam.
The satire is strident, but it’s also too smart to ignore, as Buckley lines up accurate caricatures on end with pithy takes on the contentious era of American colonization: “The Dutch came to the New World for one end—commerce and self-enrichment. The English came to sanctify the land to the glory of God.”
Buckley did his research, reading almost 50 historical works as background for the novel. This allows him to portray to hilarious effect the nail-biting that went on among the rigid Puritans as their dreams for a “city on the hill” in their “New Jerusalem” threatened to slip amid wars with “savages” of all stripes: native, Quaker, Catholic, Dutch. “Their hopes for heaven on earth died with Cromwell,” Buckley writes.
As with many of his comedic themes, Buckley would probably be beating a dead cultural stereotype if he wasn’t such an enjoyable narrator. Coming from a lapsed Catholic — “They hate Catholics here almost as much as they hate Quakers,” Huncks explains to Balty — the religious ribaldry nips gently.
Coming from the inheritor of a hefty political legacy, though, Buckley’s move out of political satire has more bite. The younger Buckley described his father’s thoughts on his career in Losing Mum and Pup, his endearing memoir of the loss of his larger-than-life parents. William Buckley criticized his work like any good editor would, but often found that a novel “just didn’t work for me,” as he wrote to Christopher about Boomsday, his send-up of the Social Security Administration.
But Christopher, after leaving DC rolling in the aisles at its own antics for decades, has left the scene. His line on his work has not wavered since in December 2015 he published The Relic Master, his first historical novel, about the Reformation. His first foray was promising. The Relic Master was billed as a “rollicking historical tale” about the financial, political, and theological excesses of the Reformation era, told through the eyes of a fraudulent relic salesman.
It fell flat at times in its attempts to meld modern comedic sensibilities with historically accurate fiction (The jokes land better in The Judge Hunter, perhaps because they’re so obvious: “People are now saying we must have a bigger wall,” says Peter Stuyvesant, governor of New Netherland.) But it didn’t miss a single chance to poke fun at the testiest points of long-simmering arguments and absurdities from the Reformation era.
With The Judge Hunter, the anti-political sentiment stands: “I’ve given up political satire on the ground that American politics have become sufficiently self-satirizing,” he said in a recent interview with National Review. Something about the impending fulfillment of a farcical inaugural speech he wrote for Trump in 1999 made the whole thing a bit too—well, in a word, creepy.
But that’s exactly why we need a Buckley, a Horatian sort of satirist who models his narrators on P. G. Wodehouse’s bumbling, loveable Bertie Wooster. Buckley understands that amid new Puritanisms and new savageries, the best thing he can do is have some fun.
Thank God, then, that Buckley has a new shtick: In the end-pages of The Judge Hunter, he writes that his goal, “quixotic to be sure, is to write novels set in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries and—Grim Reaper permitting—twenty-first.” Buckley is 65 years old. He’ll be fine.