I warned you a couple of chapters ago that there are some beastly long chapters in this book, and we’ve got one of them right here.
We also have an example of Helprin’s unconcern with traditional narrative devices. This chapter is an extended flashback – a recounting of Peter Lake’s life from infancy up to the present (a point that we last left back at the end of chapter 2). But it’s not immediately obvious that it is a flashback, not until a few pages in, when the Baymen make their appearance and it becomes clear what’s going on.
So: we open on a ship anchored a mile or so off of Governors Island, gateway for immigrants to the United States. There are a hundred or so people on deck, in a state something close to shock. In a flashback within a flashback, we learn why: they hoped to come to America, but, upon examination on Governors Island, they were turned back. For a young couple with an infant son, the reason was disease – specifically consumption, which is notable for reasons that we’ll come to in the next chapter. We also get a physical description of Peter Lake’s parents – his father has
eyes as blue as the wet blue cups in a palette of watercolors
Keep that in mind when we get to the first meeting of Peter and Beverly Penn in a couple of chapters.
The parents try to convince someone to take their son, to let him grow up in America, even if it’s without them, but they have no luck. Eventually, however, they come up with a solution, when the father happens upon a four foot long miniature model of the ship in a meeting room. It turns out to be seaworthy, and just the right size to build a tiny bed into. Young Peter is put in the boat, lowered into the water and sent on his way, calling to mind (I admit that neither of these thoughts occurred to me; I read them in other reviews of the book, but they’re so obvious that I don’t know how I missed them) the story of Moses, and also of baby Kal-El, sent away from Krypton to escape its destruction.
I suspect that Helprin had both those tales in mind. An infant is sent away to be raised in another culture, where he will forever be an outsider, but also have abilities/gifts that nobody else shares – that certainly applies here.
Peter is found by a group of three Baymen who are fishing; they take him in and, without any discussion, bring him back, to be raised as one of them. For the next twelve years, Peter learns everything the Baymen have to teach (including swordfighting, which Peter takes to immediately). But then he’s sent away to Manhattan, where after a very stressful first day, he comes upon two women dancing in a park – spielers, who also pick pockets to supplement their income – and he falls in with them (literally, once they arrive back at the hovel the spielers call home).
Peter learns one important lesson with them, when he sees passers-by throwing money to them as they dance, when he would have danced anyway, just for the fun of it:
to be paid for one’s joy is to steal
And he’s set on the path to becoming a master thief. But there are some bumps on that path. The next day, he wanders into a sales exhibition of industrial machines, and becomes entranced by them (It’s far too long to type out, but the sales pitch for the Barkington-Payson Semi-Automatic Level-Seeking Underwater Caisson Drill and Dynamite Spacer is a thing of wonder). His wonderment is interrupted by the police, who snatch Peter up and take him to his home for the next several years, Reverend Overweary’s Home for Lunatic Boys. There, he meets another mentor: the Very Reverend Mootfowl, who is:
forever at the forge or workbench, crafting, cutting, designing. He lived steel, iron, and timber. he could fabricate anything. he was a mad craftsman, a genius of tools.
He’s more than that, too, but that’s for later chapters. For now, he’s simply Peter’s guiding star. All is well for a while, although Peter isn’t quite sure where he fits into the grand scheme of things:
He was not really a Bayman, not really Irish, and only partly one of Mootfowl’s boys, since, unlike the gamy five-year-olds who were to be seen in a corner of the shed, learning to work with miniature tools, he had been apprenticed relatively late. He was not sure to what he had to be loyal.
Matters come to a head when the famous bridge-builder Jackson Mead comes to New York to start a new bridge – having just arrived after the mysterious cloud wall had cut the city off for weeks. Mootfowl is beyond excited at this development, because bridges are, to him, sacred:
When a catenary of steel a mile long is hung in the clear over a river, believe me, God knows.
Helprin has told us this already, and it’s more than just flowery language. Attracting the notice of God is the whole point of Jackson Mead’s bridges. And Mootfowl has a plan to gain employment on this latest effort – he brings all his boys to Mead, and proposes a test: select an appropriately difficult task, assign it to any of the boys, and if he should perform it adequately, then Mead will hire the lot of them. Mead, who is a striking and powerful man (six foot eight with snow-white hair and mustache, and an aura to match), agrees, and selects the boy who he deems the weakest of the bunch, young Cecil Mature.
Poor Cecil performs disastrously, and Mootfowl and company trudge away in defeat:
Their single-file walk back to the workshop was taken by many to be a funeral procession without a corpse.
But there will be a corpse: after a few days of despondent lethargy, Mootfowl calls Peter in to assist him on a new project, a strange wood-and-metal device in his office. Peter has no idea what it’s for, but trusting Mootfowl, he helps out enthusiastically. Finally, Mootfowl orders Peter to strike an iron bar with a sledgehammer. Peter does so, then only belatedly discovers what the device was for: it was Mootfowl’s means of suicide, via the iron bar that has impaled Mootfowl and pinned him to the wall. Needless to say, Peter runs for his life, and young Cecil Mature joins him.
After a short time on the lam, and just when the heat over Mootfowl’s death has begun to cool down, Peter and Cecil are at a saloon when they meet Pearly Soames, new chief of the Short Tails (having recently killed the previous leader; one can only imagine how insecure it would feel to have Pearly as one’s lieutenant!). Pearly makes Peter and Cecil an offer they dare not refuse, and they become Short Tails.
We then get a few pages on the Short Tails, and a digression into some of the arcane criminal subspecialties they have refined into art forms, before catching up to the meeting in the Cemetery of the Honored Dead from the last chapter, and Peter’s betrayal. As we already knew, he warns the Baymen of Pearly’s plot, and so, when the Short Tails attack, the Baymen are ready, and 97 of the 100 Short Tails are slain. Only Peter, Cecil and Pearly survive. And it’s Peter’s act of saving Cecil that alerts Pearly to the fact that he is the one who betrayed the gang.
Peter can only watch, helplessly, as Pearly rebuilds the Short Tails and goes on the hunt for him, and then we jump back to the present, with Peter and the horse. As they gallop through the streets of Manhattan, they discover together that the horse can jump – or really, fly, since we’re talking about soaring over an entire city block in one go. And then Peter stops, dismounts and asks the horse, “What are you?” He gets an answer:
The horse then turned to look at him, and, he saw with a chill, that they eyes were infinitely deep, opening like a tunnel to another universe.
Which might well be literally true. After that, Peter decides to head for a refuge he’s built for himself
above the barrel of the sky, atop the glowing constellations.
It’s located above the ceiling of Grand Central Station, where the architects created constellations of stars high up (did J.K. Rowling take the idea for the enchanted ceiling of the Great Hall at Hogwarts from this scene?). Above the stars, Peter has a space with a bed, a larder, running water, a stove to cook with, and an escape mechanism.
Peter Lake was one of the few who knew that beyond the visible universe were beams and artifice, a homely support for that which seemed to float. And he had returned by craft and force to the back of the sky, where once in another life he had helped to forge the connections between the beams, to rest now amid the props of the designers’ splendid intentions.
It’s clear, to me at least, that this is meant to be taken both literally and figuratively – this will play out over the course of the book, and keep this passage especially in mind when we get to the very end.
Peter’s refuge is not unknown to all, however – after thirty-six hours of much-needed sleep, he’s awoken by the approach of a gang. Not the Short Tails, but another gang, the Dead Rabbits. Thankfully, they intend Peter no harm, they just want to buy the horse (and enter him either in the circus or as a thoroughbred at Belmont). Peter eventually makes it clear to them that the horse is not for sale at any price, and then he decides, once and for all, to make an end to the life of constant pursuit. He considers various ways in which he might do so, including the example of St. Stephen, who
changed form before the eyes of those who watched, that he could rise in the air and be many things, that he knew the past and future, that he traveled from one time to another, though he was a simple man.
Helprin will come back to St. Stephen in part 3 of the book, but compare his attributes to what you’ll see Peter Lake do in the next few chapters, as well. In the meantime, Peter purposes to:
steal enough money so that he could set himself up and try to become something other, and perhaps better, than what he was.
And the chapter ends with this musing from Peter:
“With all that I’ve seen,” Peter Lake said to himself, “I’ve seen nothing. The city is like an engine, an engine just beginning to fire itself up.” He could hear it. Its surflike roar matched the lights. Its ceaseless thunder was not for nothing.
Everything we talked about in the introduction and first chapter is here – building connections across time and worlds, New York City as a giant machine, and also as a single giant organism, the desire to cross worlds, to get back to another, better world – Heaven, maybe.
And in the next chapter, we’re about to meet someone who will change Peter Lake’s life completely…