The 15th novel by the conservative intellectual godfather and gadfly is a brainy thriller cut from the same cloth as Spytime (2000): fast-moving and based on historical events only all too real.
Civil engineer Axel Reinhart prepares to leave Hamburg with his wife Annabelle and 13-year-old son, Sebastian, for a stay in America. The Gestapo refuse Axel permission to leave Germany, and the narrator thereafter shifts to his family’s years in America, with briefly juxtaposed glimpses of both Axel’s unwilling involvement in Nazi projects and flashbacks to the histories of his own and (especially) his wife’s families, in which we learn what Sebastian himself does not yet know: that he is of part-Jewish ancestry. The bulk of the story records Sebastian’s growth to young manhood; his OCS training, and selection to work as a translator at the International War Crimes Tribunal in Nuremberg in the years 1945–46; and his eventual disillusionment as he learns what happened to the father he never saw again after leaving his homeland. Buckley creates vivid cameo portraits of such crucially involved historical figures as Hermann Goering and American Justice Robert Jackson, and matches them with in-depth characterizations of stoical, thoughtful Sebastian and of the steely, infuriatingly self-possessed concentration camp commandant (named “Amadeus”!) to whom he’s “assigned.” An enormous amount of information is packed into the story, and Buckley doesn’t altogether solve the problem of mingling exposition with drama, especially in the early going. But the dialogue (always one of this author’s strong points) is crisp and revelatory, and the dramatic momentum of the final hundred pages—in which the tribunal reaches verdicts and Sebastian finds in himself the capacity to rethink the imperatives of right and wrong—has a tumbling intensity reminiscent of Richard Condon’s sardonic fictions.
Literate, absorbing, and thought-provoking. Buckley at his best.