Mark Helprin has always been a favourite. I’ve read most everything by him and though I started with the short stories, and though he seems to have the greater reputation in that regard, it is the novels I have found most satisfying. I would recommend without hesitation Winter’s Tale (1983), A Soldier of the Great War (1981) and Freddy and Fredericka (1995).
Winter’s Tale is a magical realist tour de force which begins at the turn of the century in New York City, a place of steaming oyster bars, of gangs, of horses that can leap a city block, and always the sense of clear winter. Cold still nights, snow and quiet. Its a romantic fantastic tale. A Soldier of the Great War is the story of a man who loses everything but keeps his optimism. The world remains beautiful to him despite the horrors he has witnessed, the wars he has survived and the loved ones he’s lost. Freddy and Fredericka is the funniest of them; a British prince and princess end up in America broke and toothless (through circumstance) and end up doing more than surviving, kind of a novelistic shot at a Frank Capra story.
What I love about Helprin is that more than any other writier I know, he seems able to convey optimism without weakness. Few others can write about sunshine and light the way he can. He can do darkness but you only realize when you read his prose how rare his talent is. His novels tend to be pervaded by a sense of rising toward the light.
Here are two passages describing the remarkable Pearly Soames from Winter’s Tale.
Pearly Soames wanted gold and silver, but not, in the way of common thieves, for wealth. He wanted them because they shone and were pure. Strange, afflicted, and deformed, he sought a cure in the abstract relation of colors. But though he was drawn to fine and intense color, he was no connoisseur. Connoisseurs of paintings were curiously indifferent about color itself, and were seldom possessed by it. Rather they possessed it. And they seemed to be easily sated. They were like gourmets who had to build castles of their food before they could eat it. They confused beauty and knowledge, passion and expertise. Not Pearly. Pearly’s attraction to color was like an infection, or religion, and he came to it each time like a starving man. Sometimes, on the street or sailing along the waterfront in a fast skiff, he would witness the sun’s illumination of a flat plane of color that was given (like almost everything else in New York) a short and promiscuous embrace. Pearly always stopped, and if he froze in the middle of the street, traffic was forced to weave around him. Or if he were in a boat, he turned it to the wind and stayed with the color for as long as it lasted. House painters were subject to interludes of terror when Pearly burst upon them and stand close, staring with his electric eyes at the rich glistening color flowing thickly from their wet brushes. It was bad enough if he were alone (they all knew him, and were well aware of his reputation), but he was not infrequently accompanied by a bunch of Short Tails. In that case, the painters trembled because they would be punished afterward for the time that the Short Tails were obliged to stand in silence with their hands in their pockets, observing the inexplicable mystery of Pearly’s “color gravity,” as he called it. Unable to complain to Pearly, they would leave a few of their number to beat up the painters.
Imagine the magic required to make a man cringe at the sight of a baby, and want to kill it. Pearly had that magic: he hated babies and wanted to kill them. They cried like cats on a fence, they had enormous round mouths, and they couldn’t even hold up their own goddamned heads. They drove him crazy with their needs, their assumptions, and their innocence. He wanted to smash their assumptions and confound their innocence. He wanted to debate them despite the fact that they couldn’t talk. He also hated small children too young to steal. What a tragic paradox. When they were small and could fit between bars, they didn’t know what to do and couldn’t carry anything. As soon as they got old enough to understand what they were supposed to bring back from the other side, they were unable to get through. And it wasn’t just children that he disliked for their vulnerability. He felt his chest heave with waves of uncontrollable violence at the sight of any cripple. He gnashed his teeth and wanted to kill them, to crush them into pulp, to silence their horrible self-pity, and bend the wheels of their chairs. He was a bomb-thrower, a lunatic, a master criminal, a devil, the golden dog of the streets.