Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 3, chapter 6 – “The Machine Age”)

Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 3, chapter 6 – “The Machine Age”)

We’ve come to the end of Part Three, and quite a few questions are going to be answered.  What’s the huge ship carrying?  Who does it belong to?  What has Peter Lake been up to since his return?  What’s going to happen when, as the last chapter promised, New York City begins to come alive?    Hang on tight, because we’re about to find out…

We begin with Peter, and we briefly recap what he’s been doing since we met him last, in St. Vincent’s Hospital.  He’s spent the first few months of 1998 on the streets, sleeping in subway tunnels, finding his meals in garbage cans or at the back doors of restaurants and bakeries, where the employees

were always willing to give him a carrot or a roll, if he would take his intense and disturbing presence elsewhere.

By the beginning of summer, though, Peter begins to wander the city in earnest, trying to remember who he is.  He finds several “holy places’ (only one of them an actual church – the Maritime Cathedral that he visited back in Part One).  Another of these spots is the alley outside Petipas, where he encountered the Sun’s staff and picked up young Abby Marratta.

In his wanderings, he sometimes finds snatches of memory, but they don’t mean enough to him; there’s no context that might help him put things together and reclaim himself.  It’s a difficult existence, but Helprin notes that it does have some rewards; the people of the street (marginalized, poor, often one unlucky moment away from a quick death) seem to have a similar gift of vision to the one that Beverly Penn had (unfortunately unaccompanied by the ability to understand or clearly communicate it).

One day, Peter happens to walk past The Sun’s headquarters and finds himself staring down through a skylight into the bowels of the building, home to the printing presses and other assorted machinery.  Peter doesn’t know why or how, but the machinery calls to him:

There, at last, was something he knew and was sure of.

He watches as two very unhappy machinists scratch their heads while contemplating a partially disassembled machine, which Peter immediately recognizes as a “double mutterer”.  He taps on the skylight glass and offers to enlighten them, and after a little back and forth, they grudgingly agree.

Stepping into the basement of The Sun, Peter knows now that he is, or was, anyway, a mechanic:

In each section of the half-acre, years of knowledge charged out from the interior darkness and stood at attention like brigades and brigades of soldiers on parade.

Peter easily explains the workings of the double mutterer, as well as several other machines, including a perfection tattle and a comely engine.  The entire machine room, Peter tells them, is like a puzzle; the levers to release one machine can be found halfway across the room, and so forth.  But it all fits together:

The whole business is like a giant puzzle.  It’s sort of an equation.  The pieces are interrelated, as if they were the instruments of an orchestra.  To be the conductor,” Peter Lake said with a grin, “you have to know every instrument.  And you have to know the music.”

This is beautiful language, and it’s good to see Peter back in his element again.  And it’s only logical that he thinks of the machines in musical terms; we saw that way back in Part One.  Of course Peter knows every instrument, and there’s no question he knows all the music, too.

Peter is hired on as chief mechanic (although, having modest needs; and because the current chief mechanic is willing to take orders from Peter, but not to relinquish his title and salary, he’s paid as an apprentice), and makes a good impression on his new boss, Praeger de Pinto (who doesn’t recognize Peter from weeks before at Petipas; Peter doesn’t recognize him, either).

Peter is satisfied with his machines, only occasionally distracted, sometimes by thunderstorms.  Also fascinated – and terrified (as Peter is not) by one particular storm are Martin and Abby Marratta.  They’re under the care of the nanny, who’s in such a sound sleep that they’re unable to rouse her; and thus Martin, with five-year-old logic, assumes she’s dead, killed by the storm.  Their parents are probably dead, too, he reasons, so it’s a good thing he was recently taught how to light the stove and cook breakfast.

The nanny is not dead, of course, but Helprin uses this little vignette to illustrate the perspective of life for two small children growing up in the heart of Manhattan.  This is a wonderful few pages; I particularly enjoy the description of one of their hobbies: a more innocent version of Jimmy Stewart’s activities in “Rear Window.”  Abby and Martin watch the people in the building across from them every day, and have named nearly a thousand of them based on what they can observe from afar:

They had hundreds of invisible friends with names like “Fat Woman and Baldy,” “The Dog people,” “Lonely Dorian,” “Snake Lady,” “Underwear Man,” “The High Plant People,” “The Low Plant People,” “The Smoke People,” “Alfonse and Hoola,” “Screecher and Tiptoes,” “Crazy Ellen,” “The Boxer,” “Romeo,” “The Garilc Boys,” etc.

They also can read the various signs of their natural environment (sounds from the plumbing, the smells of perfume wafting up from the street, and so on) and discover how to make the telephone “sing to itself” via feedback.  Sun artist Marko Chestnut comments on this:

“It is true,” he said, “that they live in a machine – the city itself.  But if the machine can emerge from nature, then, surely, nature can emerge from the machine.”

And not just emerge, but rise and take flight.  Abby and Marratta have, in their innocence, a piece of the same vision that Beverly Penn had, if from a diffrent perspective.

Helprin then quickly (for him, anyway) gives us a glimpse of Athansor, toiling away in a mill in the city of the poor, “consuming perpetuity.”  From his station, endlessly circling as he turns the mill, he can still see the skyline of Manhattan, and he’s sustained by that vision.

It’s no coincidence that we go straight from Abby and Martin’s imaginative vision of a rising city, to Athansor’s very grounded view of the same thing.  Everything is connected, after all.  And another connection is the mysterious ship in the harbor.  We come back to that mystery, by way of a digression about the Mayor, who is never named, only described by the title that a “Council of Elders” bestows upon every Mayor before they take office (Harry Penn and Craig Binky somehow coexist on this Council).

The current Mayor got a fairly decent name, the Ermine Mayor (others in the past, not so fortunate, were called the Rag Mayor or the Bone Mayor).  Praeger de Pinto comes to visit him and demands answers about the giant ship.  The Mayor refuses, saying that, were Praeger in his place, he’d do the same.  Praeger isn’t hearing that, and he threatens to withdraw The Sun’s endorsement in the upcoming election.  The Ermine Mayor is unomved; there’s no one to run against him.  Praeger says that maybe he’ll run, and at first the Ermine Mayor scoffs, but begins to see that Praeger might well be a more formidable opponent than he seems at first glance.

In the meantime, Praeger, Virginia and Hardesty continue their surveillance of the ship (when almost everyone else, even at The Sun, have given up).  One morning, they catch a signal light between the ship and someone on shore.  They spring into action, and manage to get to the harbor in time to see a limo departing, presumably with some of the ship’s crew.  They follow it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where three people emerge.  Praeger, Hardesty and Virginia have no idea who these three men are, but Peter Lake would recognize them instantly: Jacksom Mead, Reverend Mootfowl, and Mr. Cecil Wooley.

We’ve already seen Cecil (when Virginia first arrived in Manhattan), but the other two are something of a surprise (or maybe not; Mootfowl already reappeared once after his death, back in Part One, after all).  But they’re not the only people to visit the museum; more limos appear, disgorging the Mayor – and then Harry Penn.  Praeger is momentarily stunned, and can only ask of Jackson Mead, “Who are you?  And where do you come from?”  The answer is:

“From St. Louis, and beyond, and other places.”

Praeger quickly gets hold of himself and pays Harry Penn a visit at home.  In the bath, to be exact.   Harry is embarrassed, and he tells Praeger “what he can” – he knows about the ship, and Jackson Mead, and apologizes for the fact that The Sun will not pursue any further answers.  he does, however, help Praeger get an audience with Mead (as well as Mootfowl and Mr. Wooley).  Virginia and Hardesty accompany him, and they return to the museum, Mead’s temporary headquarters, at 4:30 in the morning.

When they enter, music is playing (named as Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto), and Reverend Mootfowl is praying before a large painting depicting the ascension of St. Stephen.  Mead is at his desk, thrilling to the final movement of the concerto, which he likens to:

a good machine, a perfectly balanced rocker arm, something well-oiled and precise.

He goes on in praise of the music, noting that the perfect rhythms are present everywhere.  And then he says:

“When you die, you know, you hear the insistent pounding that defines all things, whether of matter or energy, since there is nothing in the universe, really, but proportion.”

There’s some sparring between Praeger and Mead over the public’s right to know what he’s up to, and Helprin delves a bit into his own politics, before returning to the story, as Mead reveals what he’s doing:

“My purpose,” he said, suddenly soft and benevolent, “is to tag this world with wider and wider rainbows, until the last is so perfect and eternal that it will catch the eye of the One who has abandoned us, and bring Him to right all the broken symmetries and make life once again a still and timeless dream.  My purpose, Mr. Marratta, is to stop time, to bring back the dead.  My purpose, in one word, is justice.”

It can’t be any clearer than that.  Mead, as he did in Part One, is building a bridge.  Recall that Reverend Mootfowl worshiped bridges and believed that God noticed them.  Mead wants to build a bridge so extraordinary that God cannot ignore it.  And he wants to, as Virginia was instructed to do in Part Two, shatter time and bring back the dead.

It’s slightly disappointing that Virginia doesn’t have more to do in this scene, because Mead’s words ought to resonate with her just as much as they do with Hardesty; but it’s he that carries the conversation forward.  Praeger, also, still has some things to say.  He argues with Mead about the painting; Mead asks whether St. Stephen actually rose, and dismisses Praeger’s answer.  The truth as he sees it is that St. Stephen did not rise.  But he is rising, and the reality of his rising will not be complete until all things can be seen at once; until we have the perspective to see every event as happening at the same time; that time itself is the true illusion.

Praeger is not sold on this, and he brings up a comment Mead made earlier, about dying.  How, Praeger wants to know, can Mead know what one experiences when one dies?

“Oh,” said Mead modestly, “I’ve died many times.  Let’s see,” he continued, and began to count on his fingers.  “At least six.  Maybe more.  It’s hard to keep track.”

Praeger still isn’t convinced; he’s trying to reason all this out; while Hardesty is seeing with his heart.  Praeger will not relent, and threatens to “sweep away the cobwebs” that Mead is placing before them.

“Interesting that you should say that,” said Jackson Mead.  “I mean, about the cobwebs.”


“Wait till you see my cobwebs, Mr. de Pinto, just wait.  Compared to them, iron is nothing.”

And that’s where we end Part Three.  We’ve got a man who claims to have died several times, who doesn’t appear to have aged in 80 years, accompanied by two assistants who are equally unchanged despite the passage of nearly a century (one of whom has died, “onscreen” as it were, at least once), who intends to build a bridge so extraordinary that it will attract God down from Heaven to right all things on Earth.  And he’s in command of massive resources (both to build the unprecedented ship he’s brought to New York, and to cover up all traces of his activity over the centuries) that may enable him to do the job.

And his words echo things we’ve seen over and over in the book.  The idea that there’s no such thing as time; that past, present and future are all the same thing, when viewed from sufficiently afar, and that he’s seeking to build a bridge to that faraway vantage point.

At the same time, we have others who have pieces of the same vision.  There’s Peter Lake and his newfound home among the machinery of The Sun; and Martin and Abby, who can hear the music of the machines.  Everything is coming together.

Next up, we begin Part Four, and we see what will be built from all the disparate elements…


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