With a white horse serenely flying through an evening-blue, star-flecked sky, far above a Manhattan skyline, the book jacket for Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale is certainly one of the prettiest of the year. The prose inside is pretty too. Twinkling images assembled from a palette heavy on blue and “swirling gold.” Periodic clusterings around such inspirational buzzwords as “light” and “dreams” and “magic” and “heart.” And if the cover art foreshadows the style of this gargantuan cotton-candy novel, the title poised between horse and skyline suggests the allusive, striving nature of the themes to come: Shakespeare’s romance of resurrection will be only the most conspicuous swatch in a patchwork of Renaissance fairy tale, Victorian saga, Vonnegutian fable, and dreamy surrealism in the Latin American manner.
This dressing up in literary tradition is not a new development in Helprin’s career. Of all serious young American fiction writers he has displayed the greatest passion for the past, the grandest faith in (and gift for) old-world artifice. Refiner’s Fire, his elaborate, overreaching first novel, celebrated the Anglo-picaresque legacy of Fielding and Smollett, complete with winking subtitle (“The Life and Adventures of Marshall Pearl, a Foundling”); though set in postwar America and Israel, it energetically mirrored the outlandish incidents and outrageous coincidences of those eighteenth-century models while bringing in fabulistic, Biblical touches (a wrestling match with an eagle, for example). Helprin’s short stories, collected in A Dove of the East (1975) and Ellis Island (1981), also float on historical/literary nostalgia—a romance not only with bygone forms, but with presumed bygone values: the heroic, the idealistic, the ever yearning and optimistically aspiring.
In the most artful of those stories, inventive charm and verbal felicity can pull readers into (or over) Helprin’s visionary mode, at least long enough to sustain a brief sugary notion. In Winter’s Tale, however, with nearly 700 pages of questing for “justice,” transcendent love, and immortality, even the prettiest confections—flying white horses, ancient machines resurrected with Disneyesque flair, bridges made of light—can’t obscure the flimsiness, the unearned quality of Helprin’s borrowed style and substance.
The prime lender here is not Shakespeare, as it happens, but Charles Dickens. From the opening intonation (“For the whole world has poured its heart into the city by the Palisades…”) to the closing benediction (“that is a question which you must answer within your own heart”), Helprin takes on the hearthside, grave yet hortatory tone of early middle-period Dickens. His hero, master mechanic and thief Peter Lake, is a poor orphan babe—abandoned in New York harbor by doomed turn-of-the-century immigrants, reared in the Overweary Home for “boys of the street who had gone mad.” In a city with “many millions on the run, always in the pitch of events, robbed even of their own inner tenderness,” Peter briefly joins a criminal gang called the Short Tails, whose leader Pearly Soames will become his pursuing nemesis through the decades. He is forever haunted …