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The Relic Master
By Christopher Buckley
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
So first, a shameful confession, that I haven't read anything by the brilliant writer Christopher Buckley since his 1994 Thank You For Smoking; and that's almost a punishable crime, given the half-dozen smart and cynical books he's churned out since then, an author who is nominally a Republican (he's the son of famed conservative William F. Buckley, and early in his career he was a speechwriter for the elder George Bush), but whose political satires tend to skewer the stupid and corrupt no matter what their particular partisan leanings. So how great for all of us, then, that Buckley recently declared it impossible to write decent political satire in an age of the Tea Party and Trump, and instead has released his first-ever historical novel, the delightfully wicked and profane Medieval comedy The Relic Master; for this is Buckley being just as naughty as he is with contemporary tales, but in this one lampooning no less than the entire Catholic Church, delivering what is essentially a zany caper about a pair of con artists who fool the church into buying what we now in contemporary times know as the venerated Shroud of Turin.
For those who don't know, the Shroud is supposedly the actual cloth that Jesus's dead body was wrapped in after crucifixion, seared with the outline of his naked body from the electricity that came from his resurrection; and back in the years after the Roman Empire but before the Renaissance, it was a crown jewel in what was at the time a booming business in holy relics among Catholic churches, literally hundreds of thousands of objects from the tiny (pinkie toes of minor saints) to the immense (splinters from the cross that Jesus was nailed to), that were tied in closely to the Catholic practice in those days of "indulgences," in which one could literally buy their way into heaven by paying museum-type admission fees to churches to go pray in front of such relics. That's a big part of what makes Buckley's novel so enjoyable, is that it's an extremely well-researched and factual look at all of these subjects and more, including the Martin-Luther-led Protestant movement in those years that was expressly a rebellion against such indulgences; but then Buckley wraps all these facts and figures into a very witty fictional story, one grounded in the real world where all the characters are quite aware of the semi-scams all these practices are, even the Catholic officials themselves, and where decisions over things like Luther's protection against popish prosecution are acknowledged as mostly political maneuvers that have little to do with actual religious piety. A fairly thick novel but one that I flew through in just a few days, this will be a hit both among existing Buckley fans and those who enjoy any good skewering of organized religion, and it comes strongly recommended to all but the most self-righteous Catholics.
Out of 10: 9.5