Saturday, November 06, 2004

"Lofty Matters" for Red State Readers

I'd mentioned a while back that I was eagerly anticipating the publication of Mark Helprin's new short story collection, The Pacific and Other Stories.

It arrived in the mailbox a couple weeks ago. Many of the stories in this collection had been previously published in various periodicals over the last decade, and I'd say I've read almost half of them already. So far I've only read one of the new stories, which I'll get to in a moment.

Back in the 80s, Helprin used to be favored by the New York literary critics, probably because of his 1983 novel Winter's Tale, in which New York becomes a sort of holy city, peopled by pure and righteous newspaper editors refined by the fires of a Y2K apocalypse. (Or am I giving away the ending?)

But then Helprin started making his political views known, and came out of the closet as a (gasp!) conservative! He really took a beating when he worked briefly for Bob Dole's presidential campaign as a speechwriter.

So I was curious how the New York literary critics would approach this new book--his first in almost a decade.

Here's the New York Times review:

There is water, water everywhere in Mark Helprin's soggy new collection of stories.

Whether it takes the form of the Atlantic or the Pacific, a Venetian canal or a Canadian snowfield, water plays a symbolic role in virtually every one of these tales - an emblem of the obliviousness of the physical world, and the possibility of renewal and redemption. It is a metaphor for Nature, for Eternity, for Life and for Death; a reminder that Mr. Helprin is interested not in the minutiae of daily life but in the Big Picture and big questions about truth and goodness and mortality.

In the past, this outlook - together with a prodigious imagination - has resulted in some potent fiction: the fierce, faintly surreal improvisations of "Ellis Island and Other Stories'' (1981) and the haunting, picaresque reminiscences of a war veteran in "A Soldier of the Great War'' (1991).

But this time, in "The Pacific and Other Stories,'' Mr. Helprin's focus on moral absolutes seems to have hardened, if not calcified, and most of his philosophical excursions into fable-land result in heavy-handed, stage-managed fictions - works hobbled by simplistic, Manichean juxtapositions of good and evil, the noble past and the debased present.

Moral absolutes! Good and evil! It's all simplistic, says the reviewer. Where's the nuance?*

Mr. Helprin - who, in addition to writing fiction, has written speeches for former Senator Bob Dole and political columns for The Wall Street Journal - tends to view things, in these stories, in black-and-white, all-or-nothing terms. As a result, his heroes often emerge as cardboard exemplars of virtue. Many are preoccupied with lofty matters like how to die with honor, how to serve God, how to remain true to their ideals.

Out here in the red states, we can relate to such "lofty matters." Helprin's too good for New York. The reviewer calls the stories "lugubrious," "cloying," and "synthetic," filled with "self-important, sentimental language," and winds up the review stating:

At once predictable and unbelievable, these stories not only fail to provide a durable showcase for Mr. Helprin's instinctive gifts as a storyteller, but they also point up a growing sanctimony and schematism to his writing.

Sanctimonious? Well, really, what else would you expect a New York Times book reviewer to say about a conservative writer anyway?

As I said, I have only been able to read one of the new stories. Though not the first new story in the book, I read "Monday" first because the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks figure into the plot.

"Monday" is a story about a building contractor, Fitch, who takes on a job for a woman whose husband was killed in the collapse of the World Trade Center. When he learns of the husband's fate, he decides to rally all his workmen to complete the woman's apartment free of charge. Using his own money to purchase the finest materials and knowing that it could cost him other business, Fitch and his workers create in this woman's apartment a work of art.

The theme of being refined by hardship or hard effort is a recurring theme of Helprin's. We see it in Marshall Pearl, the protagonist of the appropriately named Refiner's Fire; Wallich the mountain climber in "The Shreuderspitze"; Peter Lake in Winter's Tale; the young protagonist of A City in Winter who becomes the queen in the sequel The Veil of Snows; and many other works of Helprin's.

Fitch is no different. Though already an honorable man, so recognized for his skills that he is booking jobs many years in advance, even Fitch understands that there is yet room for refining. That there is a holy aspect to the work he does.

A lapsed but believing Catholic, he had not been to mass since mass had lapsed out of Latin, but what happened in the weeks of February and March made up for the thousands of masses he had missed. The mass existed, in his perhaps heretical view, to keep, encourage, and sustain a sense of holiness, and to hold open the channels to grace that, with age and discouragement, tend to close. . . . Fitch felt the divine presence as he had not since the height of his youth. The less he had and the closer to death he felt, the more intense, finer, and calmer the world seemed.

This is not writing for the tragically hip and terminally ironic, because if you accept these words at face value then you have to accept that Helprin might be on to something with all this talk about "lofty matters."

And I have to admit that "Monday" doesn't even compare to Helprin's best short stories or his even better novels. But it does contain a snapshot of his typical themes.

I'm looking forward to reading and rereading the rest of the stories in the collection. I've started the first story, which had me laughing out loud in a few places. (Helprin can also be wickedly funny.) And I certainly recommend that red state readers ignore the natterings of a New York reviewer who seems to have lost touch with the power that can be found in the "simplistic" and "sentimental."

* The word "nuance" is really taking a beating this year, eh?

UPDATE: While I am glad to finally have a new Helprin book after nearly ten years, I was sort of hoping for another novel instead of a collection of short stories, many of which I'd already read. I think the novel form is where he excels. But within the last week this listing appeared at Amazon. I have no idea what it is, but the prospect of two books in one year's time makes the long wait worthwhile.


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