Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 2, chapter 5 – “Hell Gate”)

Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 2, chapter 5 – “Hell Gate”)

We’re coming to the end of part 2, and our final new character.  She’s a young woman by the name of Christiana Friebourg, and we meet her – in good Helprin fashion – in a flashback.  She’s remembering her grade-school days, and one event in particular: the time that everyone in her class had to write an essay about their favorite animal and read it aloud.

Christiana has a favorite animal, the memory of whom is so overwhelming that it almost brings her to tears.  She doesn’t talk about him, though – but she does drift back (giving us another Helprin specialty, the flashback within a flashback) and we see her meeting with him.  She’s walking home from picking blueberries, on the beach, , when she sees something fall from the sky on a trail of mist and land in the ocean.  Our in the water, she sees what it was – a horse.

A very particular white horse.  She swims out to him, and nearly drowns for her trouble.  But, eventually, after throwing herself onto the horse’s back, he – after initially trying to throw her off – accepts her and brings her safely to land.

She sees just how massive he is (she can walk beneath him and not hit her head) and she sees the many wounds that he – apparently recently – has suffered.  He then begins galloping, and jumping, up and down the beach, farther and higher with each effort, until, at last, he literally leaps up and flies into the air, and is gone.  Although Christiana doesn’t know it, she’s just met Athansor, and she’s the first person in this era to do so.

We go from that scene of amazement to the present (more or less) of the story, and our first glimpse at the inimitable Craig Binky, owner of the New York Ghost (he’s been mentioned previously, but this is our first chance to properly meet him).  Craig is an ill-mannered, barely literate, completely deranged buffoon (as we’ll see in the next part of the book, the Ghost is modelled – sort of – on the New York Post, and Binky is an exaggerated version of Rupert Murdoch).  But he’s got a certain charm despite all that.

At the moment, he’s been asked by the manager of his club if he’s got room in one of his many properties for a young woman who works at the club and who will need lodging after the club closes in October.  Binky evades the question, but his friend, real estate magnate Marcel Apand (whose company symbol is an upraised monkey fist – “ape hand”) suggests getting a look at the girl first.

The girl, of course, is the grown-up Christiana, who’s beautiful.  Marcel seizes the opportunity, and Christiana is soon ensconced first aboard his yacht and then in one of his many homes.  Helprin makes it clear that, while Marcel uses her for arm candy, that’s all she’s being used for – she’s not sleeping with him.  But, nonetheless, this is no life for her.  She wants to escape Marcel, and to get to know New York.  The city:

was alive, and she wanted to know it, even if it meant the risk of losing herself within it.  Because there were all kinds of hell – some were black and dirty, and some were silvery and high.

We jump ahead to an especially hot night in August.  We briefly visit Hardesty and Virginia, who are overcome with crazed desire, and make love ” like powerful engines, forges, furnaces.”  This harks back to the description of Peter and Beverly making love after the New Year’s Eve party at Mouquin’s, just as much else about Hardesty and Virginia mirrors their relationship.

At the same time, Asbury Gunwillow is unable to sleep; and we drop in on several other characters, and then we return to Christiana and Marcel, who are on an expedition.

They’re headed – in several armored limos) to the “city of the poor” to see what they can see.  On the way, they discuss these horrible slums, which are always burning.  One of their companions thinks that, one day, there will be a reckoning:

“I mean a shudder of anger that will make itself heard in Heaven, a fire that will leave only rubble and glass.”

And Marcel has an answer:

“We’ll rebuild.  Let it come.  We’ll rebuild.”

Keep that in mind when we get to the last couple of chapters of the book…

In the meantime, what they encounter is a makeshift arena in which gladiator-like men fight horses to the death.  The spectacle is horrifying.  Christiana wants to run away, but she’s trapped there:

She had no will, but only eyes, as in a dream.

Two horses are slaughtered, but then a third comes out, a huge white stallion – Athansor.  Christiana sees that he could easily break free of the arena, but he chooses to stay, and to fight.  When he’s killed every one of the horse-fighters, Marcel and company take their leave of this atrocious place.  But when she returns home, she does not sleep.  Instead, she gathers her belongings, some food, and all the money in Marcel’s petty cash jar (thirty-two hundred dollars) and leaves.

In the morning, somewhat to her amazement, she finds both an apartment (next door to Asbury, as it turns out) and a job (as a part-time maid in Harry Penn’s home).  We meet Boonya, another of the Penn servants, every bit as cheerfully insane as the ones eighty years before (her litany of recipes for non-existent foods is very entertaining).  And she gets to know – without ever seeing – her new neighbor.

Over the course of the winter, they fall in love, solely based on conversation.  Christiana and Asbury agree to meet on the first fine day of spring, which ends up being in June.  They go up, and despite their fears, things go better than either could have imagined:

Then she rose in one quick movement, and stood before the lover that she had never seen.  She was more than pleased.  And he was stunned.

“I knew it,” he said, in triumph, struggling to take her in all at once.  “I knew that you would be the most beautiful woman in the world.  And, goddamnit,” he said, stepping back a pace so as not to be overwhelmed, “you are.”

And that’s where we end.  True love, patience and faith being rewarded, high expectations being not merely met but vastly exceeded.  And the return of Athansor, which begs the question of who else from the past might turn up in late 1990’s Manhattan?

We’ll find out very quickly in part 3 of the book…

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