Christopher Buckley has treated readers to satirical looks at Washington politics in novels such as “Thank You for Smoking” and “No Way to Treat a First Lady.” Now he has delved into colonial history to produce “The Judge Hunter,” an eventful and often funny tale depicting the clash of competing interests that shaped early North America.
Set in 1664, the novel traces the mishaps of a clueless young Englishman, Balthasar de St. Michel (“Balty”), whose brother-in-law, the real-life Samuel Pepys, ships him to the colonies simply to be “rid of him.”
Balty’s stated mission is to find and capture the “regicide” judges who signed the death warrant against Charles I. The plot thickens nicely as Balty and Pepys gradually discover they’re both pawns in a larger game: English seizure of Dutch holdings in America — specifically, the New Amsterdam colony that will be renamed New York.
Helping Balty survive his adventures in New England is his guide, Colonel Hiram Huncks, a Harvard grad who knows his way around the wilderness, and a victimized Quaker woman named Thankful Mott.
Balty earns Huncks’ respect by protecting Thankful from both her Puritan tormentors and a Quiripi tribesman christened Repent, whose offenses seem grounded less in malice than in rage provoked by a bewildering clash of cultures.
Buckley’s extensive research yields convincing portraits of the historical figures Balty meets in his travels. Grimly puritanical Rev. John Davenport, who hates Quakers even more than he hates Catholics and Royalists, thanks Providence for clearing the land with a plague called the Great Dying that killed off 80 percent of the native population.
More humanely, the medically trained John Winthrop (the Younger) explains to Balty: “This was no virgin land, Mr. St. Michel … It was a widowed one.”
Another historical doctor, Thomas Fell, has purchased land covering what is now the Bronx and Westchester County, and readies for war against the detested Dutch. Yet he lapses into respectful silence on being told that a Dutch physician, whom he has just ridiculed, touts the benefits of the same healing diet that he himself prescribes.
Such moments let us glimpse a way out of the morass of religious bigotry and political intrigue in which these characters flounder, as they occasionally transcend their own tribal loyalties.
Buckley’s style is agile and fast paced, with characters using today’s lingo — they refer to being “played” by an adversary, and to murder as an “extrajudicial” measure — but it also shows flashes of lyricism.
Wearied from travel, Balty and Huncks fall into “sepulchral sleep” and awake to “long, blue twilight shadows.” Later they venture into a field “turned pearly with dew.”
We are reminded that the New World offers bounty and beauty, even as it also teems with cougars and snakes.
Even the developing camaraderie between our heroes suggests how cruel this world could be. The grumpy Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant serves fine wine and betrays an unexpectedly touching fondness for tropical birds. When he holds Balty hostage, though, Huncks kidnaps his favorite parrot and threatens to send one him beautifully colored feather each day until Balty is released.
Underlying this often grim comedy is a clear-eyed assessment of human nature. Regardless of how we drape them in titles and honorifics, human beings remain flawed, self-interested, cruel; at the same time, most of them retain a capacity for fellow-feeling – even if, as in the case of Peter Stuyvesant, the fellow in question is a parrot. One virtue of comedy might be to persuade us, at least temporarily, that humor is our most hopeful response to the carnage of human endeavor.
Pitt Harding is an Associate Professor of English at Jacksonville State University.