Picking Up the Pieces

Refiner's Fire: The Life and Adventures of Marshall Pearl, a Foundling

by Mark Helprin
Knopf, 373 pp., $10.00

In Such Dark Places

by Joseph Caldwell
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 230 pp., $8.95

I Heard My Sister Speak My Name

by Thomas Savage
Little, Brown, 242 pp., $8.95

Natural Shocks

by Richard Stern
Coward, McCann, and Geoghegan, 260 pp., $8.95

Two first novels by very young writers, two others by veterans, all raise in different ways the problem of arbitrariness. In each of them I find myself reading about this person or these circumstances, then read about a quite different person or different circumstances. Why so long here, so short there, why the shift now? One usual way to create a shift that doesn’t seem arbitrary is by means of story, that old device that assures us all is well, the writer knows, and will show us. If not story, then intellectual schemes, patterns, the psychology of a character, something that creates a reason for this then and that now.

Mark Helprin’s Refiner’s Fire is a long ambitious novel of almost spectacular arbitrariness. It opens with Marshall Pearl in a hospital bed in Haifa, seeing or dreaming things that we, at least, do not understand. We then shift back almost thirty years to an American naval officer who decides to run immigrants to Israel through the British blockade after World War II. In the course of this he finds a newborn baby, Marshall Pearl, with whom we began. We might assume the book will bring us back to the opening scene, and to refine the boy by fire to the point where he can become a heroic victim in Israel.

This happens, but Helprin seems most of the time not to know or care about whether the events intervening are part of a process. Marshall is raised on the Hudson, the child of rich parents, a lonely prodigy. He goes to New York, briefly falls in love; goes to Harvard where he reads a great deal, and listens to an old Scotsman lecture on the greatness of the European explorers. During a long episode involving some rich Indians playing a brutal kind of polo in the mud of the Massachusetts countryside, Helprin began to convince me that he did not care what happened, or who his hero was or would become. Just before graduating, Marshall and a close friend decide to leave, for Australia ostensibly, but they get no closer than a nightmarish Midwestern meat packing plant, after which the friend just drops out, and Marshall has an idyll in the Colorado Rockies with a woman doing research on golden eagles at twelve thousand feet and up.

These episodes might have comic possibilities but Helprin’s tone is cool and unamused. A pattern does begin to form, and damned if it doesn’t seem designed by Ayn Rand, all about the light of the West, the refining energy of a naturally endowed aristocracy: “There was nothing greater, thought Marshall, than men like this who had lasted, who were old, whose passions had been refined in fire and in ice and yet whose love was solid and gentle and true.” The fit mate for such men is Lydia, who declares:

I’m going to have a family, and I will love them and be devoted to them. The rest will work itself…

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