Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 3, chapter 3 – “The Sun…”)

Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 3, chapter 3 – “The Sun…”)

After the return of Peter Lake in the last chapter, we skip ahead a couple of months to the springtime – specifically May 15th, and we drop in on a party aboard the Staten Island Ferry (the same boat that picked Peter up in the harbor?  It’s not stated, but I’d say it’s very likely).

It’s an anniversary party – the 125th anniversary of the New York Sun.  Owner and publisher Harry Penns (still in charge of the newspaper his father created) invited every employee of the paper to this celebration, and gave each of them a special gift – a check worth a year’s salary.  So, as one would imagine, spirits are fairly high.

Hardesty Maratta and his wife Virginia (now parents of a little girl, Abby, in addition to her son Martin), are especially happy – as they both work at the Sun, they’re doing quite well for themselves.  We find them dancing among many other couples, out on deck, as the ferry cruises past the George Washington Bridge, which:

sparkled with blue and white diamonds and looked wide enough and broad enough to cradle the world in its curve.

The ferry sails on, until walls of white clouds (naturally) appear, seemingly drawn up as though they were curtains.  And the the orchestra begins to play

an apocalyptically beautiful canon, one of those pieces in which, surely, the composer simply transcribed what was given.

I read a book about Richard Wagner in which the author describes the music accompanying the entrance of the Grail Knights in Act III of Parsifal as “the soundtrack to the End of the World” – I kind of imagine that’s what the partygoers are hearing in this scene (although to be honest, Wagner probably isn’t what Helprin is going for here.  But we can talk about Wagner, and the conclusion of his Ring Cycle, Gotterdammerung, when we get to the end of the book).

At any rate, everyone is overwhelmed.

Whatever would come, would come.  Whatever they would see, they would see.  And they would be thankful to have seen it.

We go from the party to a somewhat long, quirky (some critics might say totally unnecessary – I disagree, but I can understand the point) look at the inner workings of the New York Sun, from its origins to its organization to the layout of the headquarters building and even the compensation structure.  I think it’s very interesting, and, hey, part of the point of a novel is to have room for this sort of thing.

The Sun, sort of, is a stand-in for the New York Times, although the Times was never remotely close to the sort of idyllic workplace or truly great newspaper that the Sun is depicted as (this is in contrast to the New York Ghost, which is very clearly a poke in the eye at the New York Post).

We get a little bit more about the rivalry between the Sun and the Ghost; we hear the tale of the death of Ghost founder Rupert Binky (grandfather to Craig).  He’s killed by “an enraged swan” at Oxford, and a group of rowers hear his last words: “Crush the Sun.”

Far from being the mystical and elevated utterance that they thought it was, this was a specific instruction immediately grasped by his grandson

The rivalry between the papers extended to their editorials, and it’s here that we rejoin Virginia Gamely (now Marratta), who’s become a regular columnist for the Sun, and whose columns appear in the eclectic “Editorial IV” section, where just about anything goes.  Her columns are quite deep:

simultaneously metaphysical and sensual, talk(ing) about ultimate purpose, symmetry, beauty, God, the devil, balance, justice and time.  This was a Coheeries trait.

Harry Penn, no stranger to any of that, sees that there’s going to be a problem.

“Do you realize,” he asked right off the bat, “that because of these essays The Sun will be viciously attacked?”

She doesn’t, and he has to explain matters to her:

“You can’t expect anyone to trust revelation if he hasn’t experienced it himself.  And since revelation is a thing apart, and cannot be accounted for reasonably, they will never believe you.”

Remember Beverly Penn, and what she saw, and her father’s despair that he could not see or understand the visions vouchsafed to her?  And her insistence that it didn’t matter whether Peter Lake believed her or not?  This fits right in with that.

Harry asks Virginia where she’s from, and it turns out they’ve met before, although she doesn’t remember.  It was when she was a little girl, and (as we’ll learn later) he delivered the news that her father had died in the war (which war is a whole other question).

Harry Penn runs the article and his words are borne out.  The Ghost attacks her, as do other intellectuals in the city.  This only encourages Virginia all the more:

Virginia had seen Mrs. Gamely pick up her shotgun and pump away at marauders in the night, and in many respects she was just like her mother, which is not to say that the course she chose was wise or correct – it was neither – but, rather, that it was spirited.  Abandoning caution, she took out after her enemies.

There’s a great debate among the management of The Sun on whether to run Virginia’s response to the attacks.  Harry Penn chooses not only to run it, but to print it on the front page.  Virginia is surprised and relieved; she had feared it would not be run, or even that she had gone too far and might be fired.  But she is not chastened by the experience, and she quickly continues, writing columns such as “The Mayor Looks Like an Egg.  Period.” and (my favorite) “Craig Binky and the Question of Mental Nudity.”

There’s some talk at the paper wondering why Harry Penn is so tolerant of Virginia, even including speculation that she’s his mistress, but as the chapter ends, we’re given no answer (we will find out later in the book, however).

Despite the fact that not a lot happens in this chapter (kind of a surprise after the previous chapter, which was pretty eventful), it’s a fun read.  We’ve got one more chapter in a similar vein, with a closer look at Craig Binky and his fiefdom, before things really begin moving at a faster clip…


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