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 by a Nicklebyan glimpse of a child in a hallway, “barefooted, bareheaded, dressed in filthy rags, starving, blind, abandoned.” He turns away from thievery, woos and wins the beautiful daughter of a newspaper tycoon; but she’s gentle soul fated to die young, as unjustly as Paul Dombey or Little Nell or Georgina Hogarth.
Indeed, from chapter titles to meaningfully comic names (Deacon Bacon, Reverend Mootfowl), the reliance on literary echoes for ballast remains a primary feature of Winter’s Tale, even when fantasy moves the plot along or catches the eye with whimsy. Peter Lake, fleeing from those Short Tails (and all their underworld allies) on his white horse Athansor, escapes certain death through a decorative miracle—part Greek mythology, part Shakespeare, part Action Comics: the horse flies, Peter Lake plunges into the clouds, and is apparently freeze-dried, reappearing 150 pages later (out of an ice floe near Staten Island) in the unjust Manhattan of the 1990s. But coincidental meetings, life-affirming eccentrics, and chastely intense romances all Victorianize this futuristic, fairy-tale New York. And Peter continues his Dickensian quest for justice there, a quest that’s paralleled by the misty aspirations of several other pure-hearted seekers, each with a somewhat different notion of “a perfectly just city.”
Moreover, while evoking the moral melodrama and genial sideshows of early Dickens, Helprin clearly intends to capture something of the later, darker novels as well: their monumental tensions, with increasingly hard-won affirmations and the underlying struggle between a full heart and encroaching despair. “What am I to do then?” asks Peter Lake, who tries to track down that “starving, blind, abandoned” child, only to be faced with an overwhelming vision of the starving, diseased millions; in Little Dorrit, Arthur Clennam asks similar questions when confronted with similar hopelessness. (For both, the answer, an only half-satisfactory one, is to go home and love one person as best he can.) Later on, too, whenever Peter Lake or his fellow justice-seekers go into action, there are speeches and interior monologues to remind us that such quests are arduous and paradoxical. Hardesty Marratta, for instance, the son of San Francisco’s richest man, renounces his 1990s fortune to seek the “perfectly just city” in some tougher, more challenging town: he knows, we’re told, that justice comes “from a fight amid complexities….”
But if Helprin gives Hardesty Marratta language to reflect the supposed depths and perplexities of his idealism, he also gives him a magic salver—a family heirloom that will play a miraculous role in the quest to come. Likewise, when Hardesty reaches violent New York, his initial revulsion is reversed in a Mary Poppins instant: “then the wind changed, the light came out, and he was caught up in some sort of magic.” Throughout, in fact, while periodically announcing conflict and struggle, doubt and darkness, Helprin offers only the airiest, most ersatz brand of metaphysical struggle. The villains have no weight; the evils—despite their apocalyptic trimmings—pose no genuine threat to the rhetoric of “pale shimmering gold”; the dreadful forces (unlike Dickens’s) never come from inside as well as out. Transformations are arbitrary and hollow. Optimism isn’t seriously challenged, painfully earned, or wrenched out of an abyss, but trumpeted at regular, complacent intervals.
Even death is no match for the prettified uplift—a pity, because the one striking concept in Helprin’s panorama involves mortality as the ultimate injustice. In Dickens, the relationship between his two great sources of anger—industrial society’s cruelty, the grossly unfair fact of death—is largely unconscious, the social and existential outrages feeding off one another beneath the surface. Here the interplay is explicit: Peter Lake and others repeatedly link the campaign for social justice to the quest for some kind of immortality. “My purpose,” says one visionary “is to stop time, to bring back the dead. My purpose, in one word, is justice.” But Helprin is too busy trying “to tag this world with wider and wider rainbows” (in the words of one of his justice seekers) to find a firm, eloquent framework for his promising metaphorical insight. True, some of those rainbows are fetching enough for a few pages at a time: the white horse’s first East River flight, treks through icy-river landscapes, slivers of Chico Marx comedy and New York Post parody (“Dead Model Sues Race Horse”). Skimming the top few layers off great literature of the past, however, can only produce, finally, empty gestures and false echoes.
Which makes one wonder: what sort of books would Dickens write if he were writing today? The frivolous answer, of course, is that he wouldn’t be writing books at all. He’d be word-processing the treatment for a television miniseries, or masterminding the “story book” for a soap opera, or even—considering his knack for stage-struck self-promotion—bringing his latest rock-and-laser show to Madison Square Garden. Possibly. But while those popular genres would certainly accommodate some of Dickens’s genius for unspooling narrative and bold theatrics, there’d be no room for—along with so much else—his wrestling with morbidity, his epic ambivalence about hope and despair.
Raymond Carver could hardly be more unlikely casting as a storyteller in the Dickens tradition. He doesn’t write 700-page novels. He doesn’t write novels at all, having thus far (it may be some sort of record) resisted whatever forces usually lead the gifted short-story writer to try to expand his scope and his audience. Spare, laconic, often narrated by the uneducated and less-than-articulate, Carver’s stories of Oregon and Washington working people—Cathedral is his third collection—seem to be backed up against that northwest coast, as far away from the centers of Anglo-American literary tradition as they can get. Any echoes here, you’d think, would be of Twain and Hammett, Anderson and Hemingway.
Nonetheless, it’s Dickens who comes to mind when, in a story called “The Compartment,” the most well-read, well-heeled of Carver’s troubled heroes is threatened by the onslaught of over-whelming feelings: “He knew if he let himself go on thinking about these things, his heart could break.” This Dickensian tension, the sense of holding back a wave of emotionalism, of heart-break or rage or faith, galvanizes much of Cathedral—with character after character poised on the edge of some abyss, the verge of despair.
Will or won’t an alcoholic fall off the wagon? More than any other writer, Carver captures the simultaneous delicacy and brutality of that dreaded slip. In “Chef’s House,” the loss of a rented home is more than enough to tip the scales, ending a brief, idyllic reconciliation between a sometime drinker and his estranged wife—who narrates this six-page marvel as if in a single, frozen breath. The self-deluding alcoholic in “Careful” has found a more manageable, if genuinely terrifying, focus for the precariousness of his situation: “What if, in the middle of the night, he accidentally turned onto his right side, and the weight of his head pressing into the pillow were to seal the wax again into the dark canals of his ear?” And hopelessness swamps nonalcoholics too, whether a displaced farmer in “The Bridle” or a would-be womanizer in “Vitamins”—whose shabby attempt at infidelity is stymied by a chance encounter with a menacing, prophesying, black Vietnam veteran (“It ain’t going to do no good! Whatever you do, it ain’t going to help none!”).
Ironically, Carver’s contemporary precision in sketching in these lives on the edge of despair ensures that he’ll sometimes be read too narrowly, just as Dickens’s social-reformer role once obscured his broader concerns. Broken refrigerators, bowling nights, sterile apartment complexes, RC Colas with a shooter of whiskey: Cathedral is fully stocked with the stark details that can illuminate certain American lives—somewhere between urban and rural, often rootless and culturally impoverished, on the unraveling fringes of erstwhile industrial prosperity. But sociological or psychological observation is only one layer in Carver’s art; and while some critics have found him detached or unemotional, his seemingly uninflected style is full of the same tension, that on-the-verge-ness, that he finds in the lives of ordinary, unlucky, isolated people. Sentimentality, overflowing tender or despairing emotion, seems to be always lurking just beyond Carver’s next sentence. So, like the man with the wax phobia, he must be tautly careful, pulling in each phrase, clipping it off—knowing that he now risks slipping over into mannerism, archness, a self-conscious absence of affect. The result is an implicit sense of personal precariousness: Carver, no less than any of his characters, is himself on some desperate edge, fending off the sentimental with benumbed language, unlovely people, and the occasional hard, bright metaphor.
The tension is not always perfectly maintained. Mannerism can indeed take over in an overclinical story like “Preservation,” about an unemployed man’s depression and his wife’s ambivalent response (“She stood at the stove, turning the meat, and missing both her dad and her mom”). “Where I’m Calling From”—featuring two alcoholics at a drying-out facility, one bolstered by marriage, the other isolated—is devoid of Carver’s customary tension; it seems to surrender itself to pathos (and a complementary whimsy) in the very first paragraph.
And then there’s the curious case of “A Small, Good Thing,” which dramatically illustrates the battle for—and with—sentiment that so often seems to be going on underneath the cool surface of a Carver story. In his second collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a ten-page story called “The Bath” offered a fierce, nearly telegraphic study in fear, with the parents of a perhaps-dying child (hit by a car on his birthday) further tormented by hostile, half-cryptic phone calls from an angry baker: a birthday cake, ordered by the mother, hasn’t been picked up. The child never dies in this open-ended story; the phone calls are never quite explained; the narration, biting back all the feeling implicit in the situation, pushes Carver’s style to—and past—its deadpan limits. Though an arresting piece, it’s also quite clearly a “piece”: mannered, abstract, as much exercise as storytelling.
In Cathedral, “The Bath” reappears, much expanded, as “A Small, Good Thing.” Here the cruel edges are rounded off, the self-conscious coolness exchanged for a more authentic neutrality. Consider, for instance, the vast difference in tone effected by one of Carver’s subtle, line-by-line revisions in the newer story. The baker’s phone call in “The Bath”: ” ‘There’s a cake that wasn’t picked up.’ This is what the voice on the other end said.” The same moment in the revised version: ” ‘There’s a cake here that wasn’t picked up,’ the voice on the other end of the line said.” Without that prim “This is what,” the stylistic effort being expended to hold back imminent emotional upheaval no longer calls attention to itself; thanks to dozens of such small relaxations throughout the story, the tension is fastidiously modulated.
None of these slightly softened wordings, in itself, is even remotely sentimental. Swathed in texturing detail, “A Small, Good Thing” remains effectively chilly, achingly impassive—almost until the end. But then, as if the process of removing those cool mannerisms has released some snowballing momentum in the opposite direction, Carver lunges toward sentimental affirmation in the final few pages. The boy dies. After yet another nasty phone call, the grieving parents realize who the culprit is and march into the bakery that night, confronting the baker with his cruelty. Repentant, he feeds them warm rolls (“Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this”) and explains his behavior by revealing his lonely, childless, truly Scroogelike life history. “They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.”
This transformation/communion, with near-bathos suddenly erupting from one of Carver’s bleakest visions, is only marginally more credible than Helprin’s unearned inspirational rhetoric. But it vividly signals the warring impulses that make Carver’s best work so kinetic: the writer who can produce both “The Bath” and “A Small, Good Thing” is an exciting, volatile artist. And it prepares us for the two remarkable, oddly Dickensian stories that (separated by the clenched despair of “The Bridle”) close out this volume.
“Fever” and “Cathedral” are tales of salvation, uplift wrested from the most unpromising human materials. A teacher named Carlyle is deserted by his self-involved wife, overwhelmed by the care of two small children, crushed by lost love and fever—yet somehow rescued, redeemed, by an elderly, benevolent babysitter. The narrator of “Cathedral,” an unsociable man of minimal sensitivity, is forced to play host to his wife’s old friend, a bearded blind man: they end up sitting on the carpet, the blind man feeling the narrator’s hand as he attempts to draw a cathedral.
In both cases, a slightly unreal visitor—reminiscent of Dickens’s larger-than-life eccentrics, embodiments of goodness or hope or folly—pull; the very best out of an imperfect, weak-willed hero. In both cases, a dangerously sentimental moment (complete, in “Fever,” with sleeping children) is thoroughly earned—not through psychological detail, but through the poetic authority that springs from an honest grappling with nearly unbearable tensions. Cathedral is an important book in a unique career: these are riskier, deeper stories than Carver has produced before, the first ones likely to outlast their place and time.
November 24, 1983