By Mark Helprin
768 pp. Mariner Books. $18.
Christmas is right around the corner, but I have to confess that I’m just not feeling it this year. I’m not sure why, but perhaps some holiday reading would help?
That’s what I thought I was getting with this, but I have to confess that “Winter’s Tale” (why no article?) is the literary equivalent of a date with a crazy person. Don’t believe me? I’ll set the scene.
You arrive and immediately realize this was a bad idea, because while you’ve only just sat down they’re already on about how cute their sister’s new baby is — or was it her pet corgi? — and, oh, don’t you want to see a photo? No, no you don’t want to see a photo. But you’re polite, you don’t say that, you just continue sitting there, sipping your lukewarm water, shredding a napkin between your fingers, willing the hours to tick by faster. Then they start telling you how they love to masturbate between the pages of their favorite novel.
“What’s the novel?” You ask, suddenly interested.
“Winter’s Tale!” they say.
“Without an article?” you ask, aghast.
“Just read it,” they say “and tell me you don’t love it!”
So you pick it up at a bookshop on the way home, believing that a person’s recommended book says more about them than they ever could. You get home, heat up some cocoa, and start reading.
It’s not soon before you’re wishing, “oh, if only the pages really were stuck together! Whatever it takes so I don’t have to read another horribly written page!”
But they’re not. So you keep reading because you’re only 30 pages in. Then 40. Then 50. Then … wait. How long are you supposed to keep reading before you call it quits and vow never to see that person again?
Yes, this is THAT book. The one that people rave about endlessly like it saved them from suicide in the middle of a dreary night, and all you can think about is how you would have been spared your own “Winter’s Tale” fueled desire to kill yourself if they had just done it in the first place.
“Winter’s Tale”? As in, the story OF winter? The arrogance!
If this is really going to try and stake a claim to being the definitive tale of old man winter, than I say bring on global warming!
So what is this story actually about? Well, this is what I gathered from the first 50 pages or so, before I decided to warm myself up by tossing the book into the fireplace.
1. There’s a guy named Peter. Lake. Yes, Peter Lake. Like a large body of water. Anyway, Peter’s parents are immigrants who, we’re told, were rejected entry into the U.S. (and they weren’t even Muslim!) but, instead of packing up and heading back to wherever they came from, they set their son adrift in a little basket (or something) off the side of the ship they came in on. You know, because they think it would be best if their baby son grows up on his own in a big foreign city.
Instead of washing up in New York, though, where all foreigners long to land, the tides bear young Peter to some fantastical marsh lands around New Jersey or something (poor bastard) where his destiny is to be a Moses to the marsh people.
2. There’s a white horse. The story is initially told from the horse’s point of view, but it shifts after about 10 pages, never to return (at least, not before I stopped reading). That’s a pity because this horse is magical or something. Like a pegasus without wings, or that god thingy in “The Neverending Story”. On my book cover it’s shown flying over the title … perhaps it made off with the missing “A”.
3. There’s a villain named Pearly who heads a menacing gang called the “short tails”. If that doesn’t have you quaking in your boots, the revelation that Pearly is obsessed with shiny objects, like a goddamn magpie or something, might. He’s got a particular longing for gold, not because it’s valuable, but because it’s shiny. He wants to make a room out of the stuff. In his quest to do so he hatches a plot to steal lots of gold from an armored ship. He tells his gang this while in their usual meeting place, an underground, currently non-golden room in a tunnel of the New York sewer system.
In case you missed it that Pearly really, really likes gold (why not pearls?) we have this explanation:
“Pearly Soames wanted gold and silver, but not, in the way of common thieves, for wealth. He wanted them because they shone and were pure. Strange, afflicted, and deformed, he sought a cure in the abstract relation of colors. But though he was drawn to fine and intense color, he was no connoisseur. Connoisseurs of paintings were curiously indifferent about color itself, and were seldom possessed by it … Not Pearly. Pearly’s attraction to color was like an infection, or religion, and he came to it each time a starving man. Sometimes, on the street or sailing along in a fast skiff, he would witness the sun’s illumination of color that was given (like almost everything else in New York) a short and promiscuous embrace. Pearly always stopped, and if he froze in the middle of the street, traffic was forced to weave around him. Or, if he were on a boat, he turned it to the wind and stayed with the color for as long as it lasted.”
Doesn’t that make you just go all soft for Pearly? What a romantic! “Chasing sunsets in my boat, wherever the wind takes me, because I need colors like I need an infection contracted from a promiscuous embrace!” And this all before the days of e-harmony and Match.com.
Now, if that’s the kind of writing you enjoy, you’ll be thrilled to know that “Winter’s Tale” is chock full of it! Over 600 pages worth to be exact!
But, alas, I fear it’s not for me.
“Winter’s Tale” belongs to “The English Patient” school of writing. Which is to say, a school for people who like to read words because they like the way words look on a page, not because they like what words mean. They desire to inject words into their pretentious little veins and get high on them, yet remain numbed to their meaning. And there are many, many, MANY words here to get high on. They mean nothing, and the way they are used and overused is so “high-brow American lit” it appears the brows aren’t even there but have run off with your nose, which is why you can’t tell that this thing stinks to high heaven.
“Winter’s Tale” is clearly the result of a New York wet dream Mark Halprin had. I’ve read my fair share of erotica, but I have never read anything as perverse, as degrading, as rapey, as Mark Halprin’s treatment of New York here. If this had been written about a woman, she’d be crying #MeToo into the pages.
Every character, even that magical horse-dog from “The Neverending Story”, has a line about how much they love not just New York, but Manhattan in particular. They’re about as Woody Allen on Manhattan as Woody Allen is on his stepdaughter.
Oh, I can’t stay away, the horse thinks, that’s why I’m so willing to break out of my owner’s barn. Simply strutting the streets of Manhattan in my horsey way makes it worth the beating that I’m sure to get when I return!
Peter Lake, too, is willing to risk life and limb — leaving the protection of the marsh people and the, ahem, “cloud gate” — to go to Manhattan. And of course we know Pearly loves it — he’s using the city sewers as his office!
A film adaptation of “Winter’s Tale” came out some years ago starring Colin Farrell to terrible reviews and an anemic box office. Perhaps that’s because in movies you can’t just go “blah blah blah” about chasing sunsets and loving shiny things like an infectious disease and expect people to care.
“Artless grace” says Joyce Carol Oats in a blurb on the back of my copy. Dictionary definition: “Artless” = “without effort or pretentiousness; natural and simple”?
Without pretension?? Natural??? Seriously, Joyce, did you read the same book I did?
Oh, but the book has brought a smile to my lips at last, because it does crackle so nicely in the flames.
A Merry, Happy Christmas to one and all.