Our book today is Mark Helprin’s luminous 1983 novel Winter’s Tale, certainly the author’s masterpiece and one of the only sustained examples of so-called ‘magical realism’ that didn’t strike me as lazy, condescending, or both. As most of you will already know (I’ve seldom met a well-read person who hasn’t read – and loved – this book), the skein of the story concerns innocent young barbarian Peter Lake, who leaves home to come to a towering, imposing New York City of a bygone era. There he finds/is found by an immense magical white horse named Athansor, and the two have adventures, but the cast of characters here is almost limitless, and in many ways the most memorable one is the city itself:
Manhattan, a high narrow kingdom as hopeful as any that ever was, burst upon him full force, a great and imperfect steel-tressed palace of a hundred million chambers, many-tiered gardens, pools, passages, and ramparts above its rivers. Built upon an island from which bridges stretched to other islands and to the mainland, the palace of a thousand tall towers was undefended. It took in nearly all who wished to enter, being so much larger than anything else that it could not ever be conquered but only visited by force. Newcomers, invaders, and the inhabitants themselves were so confused by its multiplicity, variety, vanity, size, brutality, and grace, that they lost sight of what it was. It was, for sure, one simple structure, busily divided, lovely and pleasing, an extraordinary hive of the imagination, the greatest house ever built.
For this reason, it occurred to me just the other day that Winter’s Tale would make a very satisfying re-read during a long-planned bus-ride to Manhattan. Bus and train are really the only ways to approach NYC; driving your own car, you’re too concerned about not getting killed to appreciate the experience, and flying is by its very nature anti-climactic. But when you approach slowly, over the course of four hours, you can watch the scenery gradually flatten out, as though in preparation for the immensity to come. You roll past the vast, faceless industries (reclamation plants, storage facilities for things and people) that exist only to support the daily workings of the thing you’re soon to encounter, and then, like a clockwork miracle, it appears: a city so huge it feels like a provocation just to approach it. In an unbeatable visual irony, you pass miles-wide and carefully-maintained cemeteries as you draw nearer, and your eyes can effortlessly shift from landscape that is quiet and determinedly horizontal to one that is intensely vertical and so raucous you can swear you hear it as you get nearer.
How nice, I thought, to re-read this quintessential hymn to New York City while driving into the heart of it. So I packed Winter’s Tale along with everything else.
Unfortunately, I also packed a monstrous pathogen, and after a mere 90 minutes of bus-ride (in the middle of a decidedly un-inspiring winterbound Connecticut landscape), my ears, nose, eyes, throat, and stomach erupted in a series of time-lapse geysers that left me trembling, weeping, sitting on the front step of the bus, begging the driver to let me off.
So my oh-so-neat English major’s idea of re-reading Winter’s Tale as I approached New York didn’t happen (looking back, I think the travel-gods were almost certainly punishing me specifically for being so insufferably artsy-fartsy), and, being of 100% Irish descent, I a) thoroughly destroyed that copy of the book and b) will never bring another copy on a trip of any kind ever again, even at Mark Helprin’s specific behest. If innocent inanimate objects can’t be blamed for the misfortunes that befall us, say generations of Donoghues from Donegal, then what good are they?
Still, upon reflection (and after fifteen hours of sweated-through fever dreaming in which my fat basset hound did all the hippo’s dance routines from “Fantasia”), I see no reason to taint the book itself, nor to call for any of my loyal (and silent … sigh …) readers to shun it. “I have been to another world, and come back,” Winter’s Tale’s motto urges us, “Listen to me.” Readers have, and readers should. Not only is there wonder aplenty in this book, but there’s also a great deal of pitch-perfect humor (indeed, Helprin is so good at evoking the wonder that I think his humor is underestimated), as in the following little epiphany by the questionably sane Reverend Mootfowl, which ends with the perfect zinger:
“A bridge … is a very special thing. Haven’t you seen how delicate they are in relation to their size? They soar like birds; they extend and embody our finest efforts; and they utilize the curve of heaven. When a catenary of steel is hung over a river, believe me, God knows. Being a churchman, I would go so far as to say that that catenary, this marvelous graceful thing, this joy of physics, this perfect balance between rebellion and obedience, is God’s own signature on earth. I think it pleases Him to see them raised. I think that is why the city is so rich in events. The whole island, you see, is becoming a cathedral.”
“Does that leave out the Bronx?” someone asked.
“Yes,” Mootfowl replied.
Joyful little hoots pop up all through this book, and they fit so well with the solemnities that you can only stand in sheer awe of the work it must have required to write this book. In fact, Helprin could almost be writing about Winter’s Tale itself when he has a transformed and visionary Peter Lake proclaim:
“You see, it works. The balances are exact. The world is a perfect place, so perfect that even if there is nothing afterward, all this will have been enough.”
As we all know, ‘afterwards’ has included some less-than-stellar work and some gems (one of which, Freddy and Fredericka, I reviewed way, way back in 2006!) … but nothing shines quite as brightly as Winter’s Tale. If you’re one of the few who hasn’t read this book, hurry out today and do so. But mind the pathogens.