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Written by Peter J. Leithart   

20-1_readingnotes01Christopher “Son-of-Bill” Buckley started his career at Esquire, wrote speeches for George Bush 1, and since 1986 has been writing satirical political novels. Most famous of these is Thank You for Smoking, which Jason Reitman made into a movie in 2006. His latest is Boomsday (Twelve, 2007). The title refers to the day when the first Baby Boomer re­tires and begins to draw social security benefits from those longsuffering Americans who continue working.

At the center of Buckley’s novel is Cassandra Devine, who works for a D.C. public relations firm. Cassandra is not happy with the prospect of paying for some Boomer to lie on the beach and play golf for the last twenty-five years of his life. She moots the notion of “Voluntary Transi­tioning,” which would give Boomers tax incentives to kill themselves (for the good of their country and kids) at the age of 70.

What begins as a “meta-issue” in a Swiftian vein gains momentum due to the efforts of Randall (“he’s not Jeffer­son”) Jepperson IV, WASPy scion of an old Massachusetts family, who lost a leg on a visit to Turdje, Bosnia, when he drove a military vehicle into a mine field, accompanied by none other than Corporal Cassandra Devine of the 4087th Army Public Relations Batallion.

Buckley populates his novel with stock characters of contemporary American politics: Gideon Payne, a slickly rotund Baptist pro-life activist, long suspected of murder­ing his mother; Frank Cohane, Cassandra’s estranged father and multi-millionaire computer entrepreneur; foul-mouthed President Riley Peacham and his wily chief-of-staff Bucky Trumble. He throws in a Catholic archbishop and a collec­tion of Russian prostitutes and pimps for good measure.

Boomsday is laced with obscenities and periodic sex scenes, though the latter are handled with some delicacy. Buckley, though, knows his territory, and his satire hits its mark more often the not, sometimes painfully.

• • •

Pity the satirist, Ken Myers says, in a world where real­ity constantly outruns the satirist’s most unlikely imaginings. If one wanted to invent a parody of self-absorption, one could hardly do better than the real-life Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., whose journals were published by Penguin in 2007. P. J. O’Rourke has a viciously funny non-review in The Weekly Standard, in which he admitted he was unable to finish the book, so atrocious did he find Schlesinger.

The name-dropping is appalling. Schlesinger can­not even attend Kennedy’s funeral without a star-struck, knowing list of the famous who attended: “De Gaulle was there, and Eisenhower, and Truman, looking shattered.” When Robert Kennedy is assassinated, Schlesinger again inserts himself into the story, as insistently as an egghead Bill Clinton: “I know Humphrey, McCarthy, Rockefeller and Lindsay, and I know enough about Nixon, Reagan and Wallace: none of these men is in a class with RFK so far as intelligence, judgment and understanding are concerned.” He is badly wrong about Reagan. But the misjudgment pales in comparison to the annoying ubiquity of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., who is there, always there, knob-hobbing with the powerful and smart and beautiful.

• • •

Schlesinger is unintentionally funny. You can tell from the title of Will Blythe’s book on the Duke-UNC rivalry that he’s intentionally funny: To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever: A Thoroughly Obsessive, Intermittently Uplifting, and Occasionally Unbiased Account of the Duke-North Carolina Basketball Rivalry (Harper, 2006). Born in North Carolina and weaned on hatred for Duke and all its pomp and show, Blythe left the South to make a literary career. His book tells of a return to North Carolina for the 2004–2005 bas­ketball season, and he spends the time watching games and interviewing the principles.

Blythe writes well, sometimes hilariously, about basket­ball, and is surprisingly insightful in his comments on class and race in the South. Even when he is describing his own obsessive Duke-hatred, he shows some skill as an amateur psychologist: “I had feared an asymmetry in the hatred between Duke and North Carolina. I had feared that the Duke fans might not hate us as much as we hated them. There was nothing worse than hating people and not having them reciprocate your hatred.”

• • •

On a completely different note, Jeremy Begbie’s most recent book, Resounding Truth (Baker, 2007) is another suc­cess. Begbie is a skillful pianist and well-informed musician, as well as a thoughtful theologian with strong evangelical and discernible Reformed leanings. Resounding Truth, one of the volumes in Baker’s promising “Engaging Culture” se­ries, surveys Christianity and music in Scripture and history, and ends with several chapters describing the “Christian ecology” of music.

Begbie doesn’t write theology of music so much as the­ology with music. He borrows concepts and patterns from music to express theological truth. For instance, because music achieves resolution only through tension, it “teaches us not to rush over tension” and points to “how to find joy and fulfillment through a temporal movement that includes struggles, clashes, fractures.” The multiple layers of rhythm in a piece of music help us recognize the multi-layered character of time.

One of Begbie’s recurring themes is that music reveals the harmonies of creation itself. In this book, he returns to this, defending (but also critiquing) the Greco-Christian “Great Tradition” that finds cosmic significance in music. For Begbie, reflection on music is never about music alone, but about creation, creativity, freedom and constraint, time, man as priest, beauty, and the respect we owe to the built-in contours of creation.

Resounding Truth requires some prior knowledge of mu­sic, but not much. It is a superb introduction to a Christian approach to music.

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