A Winterís Tale of Icy Light, and Justice, in New York City
Tumbling from publishing houses this year like a storm from the sky comes post-9/11 novel after novel: Netherland by Joseph O’Neill is the newest and hottest. One of the best, though, a sweeping story of a New York irrevocably altered as much by hope and salvation as by fire and ash, was written in 1983.
For 25 years, Mark Helprin’s maelstrom-between-two-covers, Winter’s Tale, somehow escaped my notice. Thanks to my friend Ginger Zarske, I fell this spring into its world, where a cloud wall rages, a white horse soars, and a love story spans centuries to bring evil to its knees. The book is about justice. If it seems at first like a utopian fantasy, wait a chapter or two… because evil finds its role. Only when evil grapples with good, Helprin tells us, is there genuine hope for change.
Let’s start, as the book does, with Peter Lake, a seafaring orphan. In a moment of trauma, and to save his life, his parents set the infant asea on a model boat called the City of Justice. Eventually it washes up in the Bayonne Marsh of New Jersey where the Baymen live their peculiar throwback clam-digging culture and play dare with the cloud wall, “a rapids set perfectly on edge” that “thundered, churned, flowed, boiled, crackled, screamed, and sang,” and that becomes one of the book’s living characters.
Peter Lake is raised by the Baymen until age 12, whereupon he is expelled to Manhattan. And here we first encounter Helprin’s love song to the city, the lyrical prose that rolls over and over the tongue and the brain and tells of danger as much as pleasure: “It seemed to Peter Lake that the city, or as much as he had seen of it, was similar to the cloud wall. Its motion, the sounds erupting from all directions, the great vitality, struck him as a cloud wall laid flat, like a boiling carpet. But, whereas the wall was white, the city was a palette of upwelling colors. Its forms and geometry entranced him… He was overcome by feeling. The city was a box of fire, and he was inside, burning and shaking, pierced continually by sights too sharp to catalog.”
Burglary becomes Peter Lake’s profession. One night, thieving away, he meets a girl, the lightly fevered Beverly Penn, who thrives in cold air, who sees animals in the stars, who talks of an infinity of worlds. When Beverly moves toward a future with Peter Lake, the Penn family patriarch offers Peter Lake wisdom that we readers later realize is a micro-summary of the book’s truest theme:
“Every action and every scene has its purpose. And the less power one has, the closer he is to the great waves that sweep through all things, patiently preparing them for the approach of a future signified not by simple human equity (a child could think of that), but by luminous and surprising connections that we have not imagined, by illustrations terrifying and benevolent -- a golden age that will show not what we wish, but some bare awkward truth upon which rests everything that ever was and everything that ever will be. There is justice in the world, Peter Lake, but it cannot be had without mystery.”
Mystery, studded with luminous and surprising connections, and time’s fluidity, ballast the book. Time travel happens, and a fabulous wintry placed called Lake of the Coheeries is visited; a place, as one resident puts it, “not on the map, and mail never gets through… It’s hard to explain.”
Peter Lake and Beverly Penn soon fall away from the book’s center (though remember, nothing is linear here; expect surprises). In their place come Virginia Gamely and Hardesty Marratta with a love story of their own, one that loops through the Coheeries to the city and rejoins past with present. Given my nature, the two characters I loved best were, predictably enough, none of these four but, instead, nonhuman.
First comes Athansor, the white horse. Flight-powered and tireless, he lives for centuries, he connects people and places, he survives the millennial tragedy that tears apart the city but that also ensures its future. On the eve of the third millennium (the Y2K we all in “real life” experienced), the city cracks apart. In the events described we recognize the sky of fear from Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising songs, seared through with events of September 2001: “The city was trapped within a dome of orange smoke that seemed as solid and smooth as alabaster.” But no, Helprin’s is not a chronicle of terrorism foretold -- nothing that simply parallel -- but we nonetheless recognize twinned trajectories in story and history.
Second is the winter itself, because Helprin turns New York into a sparkling snow-and-ice palace where people take to the river ice and bay ice and reorder their sacred spaces: “Skaters glided from place to place, losing track of time and disappearing for days into the cities of the snowbanks. Whole families went there to sleep in the snow rooms, eat roasted meats on tiny skewers, and take part in the ice races -- only to realize that they had been gone for days at a time, and that all their appointments had been violently broken.”
Dualities reign. The shining ice places contrast with the city of the poor, where the suffering people endure their days amidst “men whose hands warmed knives and guns.” Only “away from the city of the poor there were such things as the color blue, a cool wind that had no smoke, mats of interwoven summer starlight, and the enormous pearl of the moon.” If time has fluidity, space is often bounded, with people walled off from people as in thickened and calloused separate chambers of the heart.
How Peter Lake, and Beverly Penn, and Virginia Gamely, and Hardesty Marratta, and of course Athansor, and a good dozen other central characters, collide with uncontrollable forces to work for the city of justice: that’s a 670-page tale not easily compressed. In the end, it comes down to love. Time and again in the book, people impossibly jump space and time, but what’s real, Peter Lake tells us, is that “love passes from soul to soul,” and in so enduring, it transforms.
For Winter’s Tale, I traded human conversation -- and sleep -- night after night. Perhaps it’s clear as a blue-sky morning that I’m recommending the book? If you trust me on one thing, make it this: Don’t let the story’s magic elements keep you away. I’ve a friend who sorts books by genre with rigid efficiency. She’ll say, I know, that I’ve done a service by exposing Helprin’s bent for fantasy, thus enabling her to steer clean of time-travel, avenging Athansor, and heavens cracking open with golden light. That’s just beauty lost, though. Me, I miss Helprin’s created world. When I next go to New York, I will seek it in the city’s star-roiling skies and ice-canyon streets -- and in the forces strong as a cloud wall and a flying white horse, forces that combust when people persist, in the face of all odds, to love.-- Barbara J. King is headed for Berlin, a premiere city for experiencing time travel.