Many long years ago, when Gus and I were dating, we went to a Halloween costume party hosted by the Carolina law student association at a fine establishment on Franklin Street. Gus was extremely proud of his costume. In black tie, with a holster and “gun,” and his hair dyed jet black (by me), he cut a striking pose as James Bond. There has been no lower moment in all of the subsequent years of dating and marriage than when a classmate ran up to him and said, “I know you who are – Al Gore!”
Gus is a James Bond enthusiast to say the least, though he prefers a gin and tonic in summer and a Bobby Burns in the winter. Don’t try to win a political argument with him, even if you’re right – he has too much high school and college debate experience. In his free time, he enjoys a game of golf, a run, or listening to an album on his old school turntable. He serves as General Counsel and Head of Human Resources at Asurion, a global cell phone insurance provider headquartered here in Nashville.
He also reads widely. I love the fact that he’s still enchanted by The Lord of the Rings series and rereads it every once in a while. Today, he writes about Mark Helprin.
Mark Helprin is my favorite living author. Winter’s Tale may be the best novel written in the latter part of the 20th century, an opinion shared by some prominent authors in a New York Times survey. Do not let the recent, poor movie adaptation of that book deter you from reading it. You may find yourself reading passages aloud to those around you; Helprin’s gift for language is that moving. A Soldier of the Great War is frequently cited as Helprin’s other work of genius. My friend and colleague, Gerald Risk, rates it among his favorites. Finally, Helprin’s Memoir from Antproof Case may be his most “accessible” book and was a favorite of our book club. I’ve read his other works, including his excellent short stories, but this trio has always struck me as his enduring contribution to the literary canon.
I approached his latest novel, In Sunlight and In Shadow, with a mix of both hope and fear. Some of Helprin’s more recent work has not grabbed me, yet critical reaction to his latest was mostly positive, and it landed briefly on the bestseller lists. Its sheer length deterred me from starting it for a while.
I did finally crack it open, and immediately encountered Helprin at his best in the first three paragraphs of the prologue:
If you were a spirit, and could fly and alight as you wished, and time did not bind you, and patience and love were all you knew, then you might rise to enter an open window high above the park, in the New York of almost a lifetime ago, early in November of 1947.
After days of rain and unusual warmth, the skies are now the soft deep blue that is the gift of an oblique sun. The air is cool but not yet dense enough to carry sound sharply. From the playing fields, the cries and shouts of children are carried upward, sometimes clearly, sometimes muted, like murmurs, and always eventually to disappear. These sounds inexplicably convey the colors of the children’s jerseys, which seen from the eleventh storey are only bright flecks on grass made so green by recent rains and cool nights that it looks like wet enamel.
Coming in the window, you might wonder who had left it open, for the apartment is empty, its silence, to a spirit, thundering like a heartbeat. Perhaps you would turn back to glance at the gulls bobbing in the reservoir, as white as confetti, or to see how the facades of Fifth Avenue across the park and over the trees are lit by the sun in white, ochre, and briefly flaring yellow.
The book is a remarkable tour de force: a love-at-apparent-first-sight story between a man just returned from World War II Europe to his native New York City and a wealthy Wall Street heiress that involves, among many twists and turns: reminiscences of war; tales of the Mafia; the hilarious crashing of an engagement party at an exclusive Hamptons club; meditations on religious identity and class obligations; glimpses behind the scenes of a Broadway musical; the formation of the CIA; and a lyrical description of post-war New York. It is a spiritual successor to Winter’s Tale, itself a love story in which New York City plays a central role.
This is not a book that can or should be read quickly; its prose is dense, heavy, and beautiful. It is as slow to digest as a prime New York strip broiled in butter. It is not a “beach book” or a hip, ironic compendium of cleverness. It requires – commands – patience. Those who love their e-readers should also look elsewhere; Helprin is disdainful of book digitalization. As a frequent flier I love my Kindle, but I am not sure that this is a book capable of appreciation in any medium other than old-fashioned paper, as it feels as if it were written before the advent of the computer. It is of a piece with its 1947 setting.
If there is a cavil I might raise, it relates to that antiquarian feel. No one today (save, perhaps, Helprin himself) speaks conversationally as his primary characters do. I doubt they did in 1947, either. Here is an almost random example of dialogue from the book:
“And ever since, before I can ponder such things, I’ve been swept away. I met Catherine on the Staten Island Ferry, and since that unplanned second, everything has changed.”
“You can’t surrender completely to chance,” said Billy.
“I know,” Harry agreed, “that God is on the side of those with the biggest battalions, and I don’t believe in chance anyway. Chance is ugly and ragged. What I believe in holds things together beautifully and they run.”
As one is absorbed by the characters and momentum of the plot, the sheer beauty and nobility of thought in the dialogue overwhelms one’s disbelief in its reality.
The word “epic” is overused, but it suits In Sunlight and In Shadow. While Winter’s Tale or A Soldier of the Great War may still be greater novels, and Memoir from Antproof Case more accessible and humorous, In Sunlight and In Shadow is breathtaking.