Yet were things so different or any better in earlier times? Buckley’s latest novel opens in 1664 when Samuel Pepys — “Clerk of the Acts of the Royal Navy” — arranges for his feckless but likable brother-in-law Balthasar de St. Michel to be sent to New England on a mission for King Charles II. Ostensibly, Balty is there to search for and arrest two traitors who, years earlier, had signed the death warrant of the monarch’s doomed father, Charles I. Being unfamiliar with the New World, our hero is teamed with Col. Hiram Huncks, a redoubtable veteran of colonial wars who will be his guide and protector.
“The Judge Hunter,” then, is a historical novel, albeit one that adopts the breezy, cheeky manner of George MacDonald Fraser’s accounts of the Victorian scoundrel Flashman. Not that Balty in any way resembles that notorious rake, cad and bounder. In fact, he could more readily be described as an ancestor of P.G. Wodehouse’s most famous dolt. Like Bertie Wooster, Balty behaves with an irrepressible yet charming idiocy, while being at heart fundamentally decent and honorable. Not inappropriately, then, Buckley sometimes employs a distinctly Wodehousean turn of phrase when writing about him: “Balty finished his oration with a bow and a flourish of hands so elaborate it gave the impression of a man fending off a symmetrical assault by bats.”
Given that Balty is lovably bumbling, it’s inevitable that he should be advised by an all-knowing Jeeves, the omnicompetent, if slightly morose Huncks. A dropout from Harvard, the colonel can make quips in Latin, quote chapter and verse from the Bible, cite Shakespeare, track Indians, shoot straight, speak Dutch and, most of all, keep his own counsel. Even the slightly dim Balty recognizes that Huncks knows more about their mission than he is willing to confide.
As this odd couple undertake their hunt for the aged regicides, they regularly encounter one famous colonist after another, including John Winthrop (the Younger), Dr. Thomas Pell and Peter Stuyvesant. They also encounter every form of hostility, mainly from Puritan ideologues who cannot tolerate free-thinkers, Catholics or Quakers. These last — horrors! — actually reject all authority and commune directly with God. Torture and slow death are too good for them.
Balty simply doesn’t understand pitiless fanaticism or the coldly austere theology behind it. “Where in the Bible was it ordained that the Sabbath should be joyless and grim? Wasn’t there something about God liking flowers? Lilies of the valley?” One Sunday, though, he attends a Puritan service and a shocking “apparition” glides down the main aisle of the church. “It was a young woman, naked — entirely naked. The sight of her back made Balty wince. It was crisscrossed with stripes, raw wounds. She’d been horribly whipped.” The girl is quickly dragged away by church officials. “Balty saw her face. She couldn’t be more than twenty. Her loveliness took him aback.”
Is she a lunatic? Not at all. Only a Quaker protesting injustice. Balty and Huncks soon find their own adventures entangled with the past and future of the beautiful Thankful Mott.
Meanwhile, in London, Samuel Pepys discovers himself at odds with the spy master Sir George Downing, who is chomping for war with the Netherlands. As a naval administrator, Pepys insists that the fleet lacks the ships and equipment for such a conflict. Why then, he wonders, is a small naval squadron being dispatched to America? Nothing to be concerned about, the unctuous Downing explains, it’s just “a peaceful undertaking, an administrative review of the New England colonies.” Curious and suspicious, Pepys manages to read the sealed orders sent to the squadron’s commander.
Back in America, Balty and Huncks miraculously survive a series of murderous assaults as they gradually make their way to Dutch-controlled New Amsterdam, the future New York being already regarded by Puritans as a “Sodom and Gomorrah of vice and corruption.” There, the city’s director-general, the mercurial Peter Stuyvesant, insists on showing the two royal agents his wall, which stretches from the North River to the East River. Is it intended, wonders Balty, to keep out the savages? No, says Stuyvesant, to keep out the English. With some hesitation, Balty then asks, “Has it . . . worked?” Stuyvesant replies that it hasn’t, but that only means “we must have a bigger wall.”
While Buckley’s fiction is well known for skewering contemporary sacred cows, most notably in “Thank You for Smoking,” his previous book, “The Relic Master,” lampooned the excesses of 16th-century religious life in Europe. Similarly, this new novel reminds us that every sort of prejudice, brutality and fanaticism formed part of the tangled root-ball of our nation. “This is no virgin land, Mr. St. Michel,” Winthrop gravely tells Balty. “It was a widowed one.” Such anachronistic truths do slightly jar, however, as does Buckley’s attempt to mitigate some particularly horrible crimes because their perpetrator was culturally confused. That seems an obvious sop to the familiar, if mistaken, modern principle that to understand all is to forgive all.
On balance, “The Judge Hunter” never entirely settles on what it means to be, resulting in an enjoyable, if slightly uneven patchwork of the comic, serious, satirical, historical, tragic and utterly inconsequential. Of course, an enjoyable but slightly uneven patchwork could be an apt description of life itself, not just a precis of Christopher Buckley’s civilized, light entertainment.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday for The Washington Post.
THE JUDGE HUNTER
By Christopher Buckley
Simon and Schuster. 345 pp. $26.95