I've had this recommended to me several times over the years, but I'd never actually picked it up to read it until a few months back when Kate insisted I try it. I think I had conflated it with Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (which I really don't want to read) in my mind, a tragic case of being kept from a good book by virtue of a superifical similarity to the title of a shrill one.
What a wonderfully written book this is. If only I had the foggiest idea what it was about...
OK, that's not quite true. It appears to be about a lot of things: love, loss, time, winter, magic (subtle and otherwise). It's a love song to New York City, and a story of an attempt to storm the gates of Heaven. It's a story of the passing of an era, and the birth of a new age.It's all of those things and more, it's just not very clear about which of those it really wants to be in its heart of hearts.
Which is forgivable, for the sake of the writing:
The horse could not do without Manhattan. It drew him like a magnet, like a vacuum, like oats, or a mare, or an open, never-ending, tree-lined road. He came off the bridge ramp and stopped short. A thousand streets lay before him, silent but for the sound of the gemlike wind. Driven with snow, white, and empty, they were a maze for his delight as the newly arisen wind whistled across still untouched drifts and rills. He passed empty theaters, countinghouses, and forested wharves where the snow-lined spars looked like long black groves of pine. He passed dark factories and deserted parks, and rows of little houses where wood just fired filled the air with sweet reassurance.... But he kept away from the markets, because there it was noontime even at dawn, and he followed the silent tributaries of the mains streets, passing the exposed steelwork of buildings in the intermission of feverish construction. And he was seldom out of sight of the new bridgesm which had married beautiful womanly Brooklyn to her rish uncle, Manhattan; had put the city's hand out to the country; and were the end of the past because they spanned not only distance and deep water, but also dreams and time."
Lengthy descriptive passges in this vein abound (and I do mean "lengthy"-- I elided four or five sentences of things that the horse passed...), and would probably be susceptible to parody (they dance along the sheer cliffs above the drop into self-parody) if they weren't so much fun to read. This is a book by a man drunk on words, and the intoxicating quality carries through to the reader.
The plot, on the other hand, is a bit diifcult to make any sense of. It starts out looking like something of a crime story, then changes into a love story, then the two lovers drop out of the tale entirely for a hundred and fifty-odd pages (you can tell Helprin isn't really a genre author-- if he was, he'd've stopped there, and called it the first book of a trilogy...), at which point one of them resurfaces. In the interim, the book has ceased to be a straightforward story about love and loss in an alternate New York, but has turned into a story about the end of an era, and the dawn of a new age. Or something.
There's a bewildering section in the middle where he spends ten or fifteen pages introducing a new character, and tying him or her in to the characters already in the tale, before dropping them, and introducing another new character, who gets tied in then dropped for _another_ new character, and so on. In the end, everybody who's introduced in this way has some role to play in the plot, and they're put in their proper places relatively quickly (it's a 688-page book, with small type), but it's frustrating for a while there.
Having assembled the cast, events begin to unfold, and things get, um, metaphysical. I'm still not entirely clear what happened at the end, and the election subplot makes about as much sense as the Frederick Barbarossa bits in Little, Big (with which this really ought to be a Paired Reading, though it'd take a month to get through both...).
There are wonderful characters in this (Hardesty Marratta, Peter Lake, Harry Penn, and Craig Binky is a brilliant parody of the idle rich), and the setting is fascinating. It's a love song of sorts to New York City, but it's an alternate New York which is "better than it ever had any right to be," and yet worse in some ways. There are odd tribes living in the swamps of Jersey, and a shifting wall of clouds which sometimes sweeps in to pluck people out of time. There's a lake in the Catskills which might almost be Faerie, and colorful bandit kings who could never have existed. And yet, for all the differences, Helprin has still captured something of the spirit of the City and the people who love it. This is a book that makes me wish I liked Manhattan more...
Glancing over the above, I see that I've been awfully vague in describing the book. Part of this is a desire to avoid spoilers, but mostly it's because I just don't quite know what to say about this book. There are wonderful comic moments, and haunting images of beauty. There are geneuinely moving passges, and other bits which are just fun (the incompetent dwarfish mountineer section is priceless). There's at least one bit which will be tacked on the door of my laser lab ("Light under flawless tutelage knows no limits"). It is, as I said, a book that's drunk on words, and it can draw you into a sort of linguistic reverie, but somehow it fails to coalesce into a single easily definable whole.
This is a wonderful book, in the most literal sense possible-- it's full of wonder, and wonders. But I can't say I know what to make of it, other than that.
But it's worth reading for the words alone.