By Avinash Patra, Sr. | February, 13 2015
This book is breathtaking for me. . . . Helprin is splendid, a major talent. . . funnier and shrewder than Thomas Wolfe and much more accurate in his poetic exuberance. . . Though there are suggestions of John Barth in its metaphysical, and John Irving in its anecdotal, discursiveness. Mr. Dooley is there in its sawdust wit, and Paul Goodman's Empire City in its winning and burdensome generosity . . . and, more than anything else, there is Walt Whitman and his lyrical city vision . . . [but] it is not quite like anything else.
There was a white horse, on a quiet winter morning when snow covered the streets gently and was not deep, and the sky was swept with vibrant stars, except in the east, where dawn was beginning in a light blue flood. The air was motionless, but would soon start to move as the sun came up and winds from Canada came charging down the Hudson…
Winter’s Tale is not what most people think of when they hear the term “paranormal romance.” Not one single vampire lurks among the pages of this remarkable novel; there are no shirtless were-creatures with chiseled abs, no Earth-fettered angels, no wizards, no fae. But what the hell. We’re reviewing it under this topic on the slightest of pretexts -- it is, in a very small part, the story of the immortal love between a time-traveler and a ghost. But it’s so much more than that. Simultaneously a quest tale, a futuristic millennial fantasy (first published in 1983), a romance, a meditation on the uncompromising nature of justice, and a love poem to the city of New York, Winter’s Tale is an absolutely breathtaking piece of work.
The story begins shortly before World War I, when Peter Lake, master mechanic and master thief, manages to run afoul of New York’s most notorious gangster, Pearly Soames. Leaving town, even in the interest of self-preservation, is out of the question -- there’s a great passage explaining why no self-respecting thief would be caught dead anywhere but Manhattan -- so he goes about his business and tries to lie low. One day, on the run from Pearly and his goons, he is unexpectedly rescued by a magnificent white horse named Athansor who, amazingly enough, can fly. But Peter Lake (who always goes by both names) is actually less surprised by the fact of a flying white horse appearing out of nowhere to save him from gangsters than he is by what happens next: while burglarizing the home of the fabulously wealthy Penn family he encounters Beverly, the eighteen-year-old daughter of the house, and the two fall madly in love. But their affair is doomed from the start -- Beverly has incurable tuberculosis -- and before long, Peter Lake and Athansor find themselves caught up in a desperate quest to stop time and bring back the dead.
In the late 1990s, Hardesty Marratta arrives in New York. He’s on a quest of his own: He’s looking for the Perfectly Just City, where, he believes, “all forces would align, and all balances would be brought even.” He doesn’t expect to be in New York for long. However, he’s quickly drawn into the lives of the Penn family’s descendants and their friends -- and that of Peter Lake, who has hurtled through time with Pearly Soames hot on his trail and Athansor nowhere to be found. Eventually the two men’s efforts converge, while around them, the Millenium approaches and the city begins a remarkable transformation.
There are so many great things about this book. It includes a sleepy upstate town that appears and disappears depending on whether or not it wants to be found; a wall of clouds that sweeps away everything and everyone in its path; and a bridge constructed entirely of light. The book also boasts a wonderful gallery of characters, including beautiful, intelligent Virginia Gamely and her über-linguist mother; mysterious time-traveling engineer Jackson Mead and his two assistants, who have a surprising connection to Peter Lake; Beverly’s brother, Harry, who grows up to own New York’s most respected newspaper; and my personal favorite, ditzy billionaire Craig Binky, who speaks almost exclusively in malapropisms, employs blind bodyguards named Alertu and Scroutu, and flies everywhere in his personal blimp, the Binkopede. It deals with weighty themes, and does have some terribly sad parts, including the death of a child, but at the same time, it’s extremely funny. For example, just try not to laugh at the scene where Craig Binky demands answers of a cocky supercomputer. Just try.
The very best part, however, is Helprin’s writing. He revels in the language -- more than that, he wallows in it. And when there are no existing words to capture what he wants to capture, he doesn’t hesitate to make some up:
Mrs. Gamely] put five new words in her store from the cuckoo-clock repairman alone -- escambulint, tintinex, walatonian, smerchoo, and fuck-head (all of which, save the last, were Milwaukee terms referring to the various parts of cuckoo clocks.
His descriptions are so wonderfully compelling I can’t begin to do them justice. Reading the book, when Peter Lake is all tired and sore after spending several hours assailing the Penn family’s safe, I’m tired and sore, too. And when Athansor vaults across the sky, well, I’m right up there with him.
If I have one complaint about this book, it’s that I don’t fully understand what happens at the end, or exactly why. Certainly we’re meant to draw our own conclusions -- the last line of the book tells us as much -- but I can’t shake the feeling that I’m missing something. In the end, though, and I’d never say this about another book, it doesn’t matter. Whatever happens, happens spectacularly.
I honestly say this novel stretches the boundaries of contemporary literature. It is a gifted writer's love affair with the language. I first read it over four years ago, and I’m still as smitten with it as I was then. But I’m sure you’ll forgive me, because I truly believe that once you’ve read it, you’ll be smitten, too.