Onwards we go, and in this chapter we get an extended look at one of the villains of the book, Pearly Soames. This is (to me, at least) a fun chapter with some very entertaining moments, and also quite a bit of what some less charitable reviewers might call “padding”. Personally, I love it, but it is something to be noted.
We open with the author describing the one and only photograph in existence of Pearly Soames and how it came to be – in a police station, with five officers holding him in place for the picture.
Pearly Soames had not desired to be photographed.
He’s quite striking in appearance:
His eyes were like razors and white diamonds. They were impossibly pale, lucid and silver. People said, “When Pearl Soames opens his eyes, it’s electric lights.”
He’s also got a remarkable scar, running from his ear to the corner of his mouth:
It had been with him since the age of four, a gift from his father, who had tried and failed to cut his son’s throat.
This is all we hear on the topic, except for a reference to his illegitimacy later in the book, but it says a lot about Pearly. Pearly is human, more or less, but this passage suggests something a little bit on the “more” side of the question. What would make a father want to cut a four-year-old’s throat? And, considering that he cut Pearly deeply enough to leave a lifetime scar, how and why did he fail in the task? Was Pearly aided? Was he, even at the age of four, strong enough to fight off a grown man?
However he escaped death, Pearly grew up to be a criminal, the leader of the most feared gang in pre-War New York. Helprin briefly digresses into a discussion about criminals, and why they may actually be necessary to preserve the equilibrium of society. Pearly cares nothing for that, although he’s well aware of what he is:
So was Pearly all of these things, knowing at every instant exactly what he was and that everything he did was wrong, possessed with an agonizing account of himself, his mind quick to grasp the meaning of his merciless acts.
This biographical sketch ends with a description I just have to quote:
He was a bomb-thrower, a lunatic, a master criminal, a devil, the golden dog of the streets.
And then we find out what really motivates him, and it’s something we’ve discussed already: color. And, more specifically, gold. Not to hoard it as a dragon might, but for an entirely other purpose:
Strange, afflicted and deformed, he sought a cure in the abstract relation of colors.
We get a couple of wonderful pages about Pearly’s “color gravity” (as he refers to it), ending with a brilliant passage concerning an art theft. Having sent his Short Tails out to steal several very valuable paintings from an important gallery, Pearly is shocked when he actually sees the art in person. His men frantically show him, cross-referencing with auction catalogs, that they took the correct paintings (Pearly has quite the temper), and his response is:
“I don’t understand,’ he said, peering at his collection of great and famous names. “They’re mud, black and brown. No light in them, and hardly any color. Who would paint a picture in black and brown?”
Disappointed, Pearly has his men return the stolen art the next night, and he sends along a note which makes the front page of the newspapers, and which ends thusly:
I may be a thief, but I know color when I see it in the flash of heaven or in the Devil’s opposing tricks, and I know mud. Mr. Knoedler, you needen’t worry about your paintings anymore. I’m not going to steal them. I don’t like them. Sincerely yours, P. Soames”
Pearly isn’t satisfied with pictures anyway. What he really wants is to be surrounded by color, to breathe it in:
He wanted actually to live inside the dream that captured his eye, to spend his days and nights in a fume of burnished gold.
Just as the white horse wanted to cross over to that land of gold he saw past the iron gates in chapter one, Pearly wants to live in gold himself. Neither of them understand why, they just know that they need it. The difference, of course, is that while the horse merely wants to cross over to the golden world, Pearly wants to trap it in a room where – although he doesn’t say it explicitly – only he and his chosen associates can experience it.
But how do to it? To obtain so much gold would be impossible. Or would it? Here we get another digression, on the topic of gold carriers, the fastest and most secure ships in the world, dedicated solely to ferrying gold, and impossible to rob (or even to catch a glimpse of). It’s a great passage, and it’s the privilege of a novel to include digressions such as this, even though it slows down the flow of the story (and, remember, we’re still doling out backstory here, as we will in the next chapter, too).
Pearly orders the full 100 members of the Short Tails to convene, and while their meetings are usually conducted in unlikely and dangerous spots (the Statue of Liberty’s crown, the rafters of police headquarters, the piers of the Brooklyn Bridge, etc), this meeting will be in the most hazardous spot available: the Cemetery of the Honored Dead:
Pearly had decided that a dead Short Tail deserved to be interred as close to hell as possible, and that the burial should entail as much risk to life and limb as could be imagined (the ultimate honor to the fallen). Thus, all Short Tails killed in service were transported to crypts at the bottom of the Harlem River siphon.
The crypts are in a small chamber, several hundred feet below ground, past a quarter mile of narrow tunnel, and constantly in danger of being flooded with water from the reservoirs that supply Manhattan’s water. As one might imagine, the trip into the crypts is both slow and terrifying; it takes three hours for all the Short Tails to assemble for the meeting. Once there, though, Pearly quickly manages to dispel the gloom by describing his goal of a golden room in which the light will be trapped eternally; and the way in which they will steal the gold to build it.
The Short Tails, including Peter Lake – this is the first time we learn that he was once a member of the gang – are on board with the plan, until Pearly gets to the last step: which involves using the Bayonne Marsh as a drydock to bring the stolen gold carrier so that the gold can be extracted. It will be necessary, Pearly explains, to wipe out the Baymen who currently live there.
“We’ll go over there in canoes when the men are at work, kill the women and children, and wait in the huts. When the men come back, we’ll catch them unprepared, and shoot them from behind cover. There’s no sense in an open battle.”
As strategies go, Pearly’s plan, ruthless as it is, makes a lot of sense. It probably would have worked, except for one thing that Pearly didn’t know: Peter Lake had been raised by the Baymen, and could not allow them to be slaughtered:
Peter Lake had become forever alienated from the Short Tails, and would have to betray them. He, and only he, knew that Pearly would never have his golden chamber.
And that’s where we end things. In the next chapter, we’ll finally learn more about Peter Lake and his life.