Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 4, chapter 2 – “Battery Bridge”)

Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 4, chapter 2 – “Battery Bridge”)

Before I go any further, I want to take a step back and follow up on something I mentioned at the end of the last post.  I referenced Wagner and specifically Gotterdammerung.  I think every reader brings their own experiences and their own likes, dislikes (and maybe obsessions) to a new book, and can’t help but see things through the lenses created by those experiences.  As a Wagnerian, I see his influence probably far more often than it’s warranted, so keep that in mind as you follow along with me; you’re probably seeing completely different influences than I am.

That said, I think that it’s not just the end of the Ring Cycle that we can see echoed in “Winter’s Tale” but some of Wagner’s other works as well.  Much of his work touches on (or is completely centered on) the mythological, and Helprin visits similar realms, so it’s only natural that – even if totally unintentionally – there are some correspondences.  If you’re familiar with Wagner, I think you’ll see echoes of The Flying Dutchman, Tristan and Isolde and even Parsifal as we delve into the end of the book.  Anyway, I can see them!

So, onward.

We open with Peter Lake, who “thought that he could hear the coming of the future in his machines.”  I think it’s clear by now that he definitely can.  We get a glimpse of his new life as Chief Mechanic of the New York Sun; he slips in and out of lucidity, falling into reveries while working, among his fellow mechanics, and sometimes in his nightly wanderings.  His coworkers dispatch a young apprentice to follow him and report back, and they get a strange tale.  Among the highlights

“He had conversations with fenceposts and fire escapes.”

“He put his arms around an old chimney like it was someone he knew, and started crying.”

“Whenever he’d come to something that was a bright color, he’d stare at it for hours.  He sniffed it.”

That last one is interesting, isn’t it?  Is he remembering Pearly Soames and his “color gravity” or channeling it?

We go from Peter to a different sort of madman, Craig Binky.  Unable to learn anything about the giant ship in the harbor, he’s at loose ends and decides to attack the Mayor, who has thus far refused to talk about the ship.  He enlists his chief book critic and attack dog, Wormies Bindabu (love the name!), who proceeds to call the Mayor out in the pages of The Ghost as:

a lout, a pimp, a crocodile, a Nazi, a populist, a Fascist, a pederast, a porcupine, and a glowworm.

In turn, The Sun defends the Mayor, leading to renewed open hostilities in the ongoing war between the two papers.  But the editor of The Sun has his own ideas.  Praeger de Pinto, along with Hardesty Marratta, have kept at their investigation of Jackson Mead, and discover in New Jersey massive industrial activity.  Jackson Mead appears to have limitless material resources. Praeger reflects that:

“We’re dealing here with something different than we’re used to.  Things of the world seem to be no obstacle to him, and his problems no doubt lie elsewhere.  If he’s struggling, as he appears to be, it may be in a way we can’t even imagine.”

At least, Praeger can’t imagine it.  He’s much too grounded to be able to see or understand the battle Mead is trying to fight.  Hardesty, however, is another matter.  He’s halfway to being in another world, which I think explains his curious behavior at a packed eating-house where he’s overcome by a beautiful waitress and seems ready to cast aside everything and follow her (just as he was ready to cast aside his life and follow the vagrant Peter Lake back in part three).  But the moment passes, and the two men finally end up outdoors, watching Manhattan from across the river, as it’s battered by thunderstorms.  It’s a spiritual moment:

All the time that the storm was pounding, New York remained serene.

Hardesty imagines that he may have seen a glimpse of the perfectly just city.  Praeger has seen something else: the future:

“I went to see Binky.  I sold my soul, and I’m going to be Mayor – of that.”

But he sees more.  There is something huge, apocalyptic coming, a battle that’s been put off for years, decades (centuries?).

“I don’t want that.  No one does.  No one ever did.  But should there be a reckoning, I’m going to lead the city as it falls…so that I may lead it as it rises

Praeger’s vision will prove to be quite accurate.

We go back to Peter Lake, and delve further into his state of mind.  He’s quite mad, and we follow him one night back to the Five Points, to the “city of the poor” where he falls asleep in an abandoned tenement.  What follows is something I’ve never really understood.  As Peter experiences it, he’s taken hold of, driven through the wall, and taken on a tour of all the graves in the entire world, in one night.  He takes note of every single body, every single person, regardless of where they’re buried, or how, or their former station in life:

There was much to be done.  He had to know them all.  And, in his mad and breathless flight, he did not miss a single one, but worked as if he had been created to be their registrar – the mechanical mole, the faithful observer, the gleaner of souls, the good workman.

I still don’t know what to make of this.  My first thought is to wonder whether it “really” happened or if it was a dream of Peter’s, but I’m not sure that distinction is even relevant in this book.  I think we have to assume it was a real experience, and all I can think of is to relate it to the idea of seeing all of time and space as one still, solid thing, from a far enough perspective.  Can speed substitute for distance in that equation?  Has Peter already seen perfect justice?  Or is his tour of the graves of the world a prerequisite for him to become the perfectly just man that the previous chapter refers to?

Helprin does not tell us, but instead switches gears, and we turn to Virginia.  She’s in search of a new coat, one fit for a trip to Lake of the Coheeries, which has been planned for several years, and which she hopes might happen this year.  But in her search, she passes Carnegie Hall, and spots Mr. Cecil Wooley, who’s there to attend the day’s performance (a mixed program including Mozart and also the Amphibological Whimsey Dances, composed by Minoscrams Sampson).  Virginia follows him in, takes in the concert, and observes Cecil the whole time.  She then accosts him when it’s over and drags him off to the Hotel Lenore, where she offers to buy him an ice cream soda.  He protests (he’s not allowed to talk with strangers or be out at night away from the ship), but quickly gives in, and he’s provided with a chocolate ginger cream soda, “very, very, very heavy on the special ingredient” (rum).

Cecil, under the influence, begins to talk about the good old days with Peter Lake.  Virginia misses some of his tale when Craig Binky and his entourage enter (a fun little scene), but she picks up the story at the end:

“Then he disappeared.  It was a surprise to us all, since Jackson Mead thought this one was going to be the eternal rainbow, the real one that had no end.  And then he and the horse just vanished.”

This is obviously talking about the end of part one, and Peter’s disappearance into the cloud wall.  But note the phrasing about the bridge – an “eternal rainbow.”  Here’s an echo of the Ring Cycle, and Norse myth more generally – the Rainbow Bridge leading to Valhalla.

Cecil ends with this note about Peter:

“I loved him.  He was like a brother to me.  He protected me.  And he never knew who he was.”

He still doesn’t, although when we next meet him, he’ll start to figure it out.

Meanwhile, Hardesty is doing his own research, and it takes him to San Francisco.  While searching for something – he’s not sure what, but Jackson Mead’s words about the Eternal Rainbow are guiding him – he finds himself at the edge of a cliff, overlooking the water.  And then he finds himself rising.  He’s in a room, in a house, filled with golden light, and he’s approached by a woman whose eyes were “liquid, electric, bright, uncompromising blue.”  When she leaves him, he awakens at the Presidio, at dusk, and he picks himself up to walk back to the city.  He passes by the toll booth of the Golden Gate Bridge, and in a little park, he sees a memorial.  The memorial is a statue of the chief engineer of the bridge, Joseph Strauss.  Inscribed below it is this:

HERE AT THE GOLDEN GATE IS THE ETERNAL RAINBOW THAT HE CONCEIVED AND SET TO FORM.  A PROMISE INDEED THAT THE RACE OF MAN SHALL ENDURE INTO THE AGES.

Three guesses who the statue resembles, and the first two don’t count.

Upon his return to New York, Hardesty immediately goes to visit Jackson Mead in his headquarters at the museum.  Hardesty passes by a painting of Frederick the Great.  Hardesty feels as though he’s headed to an audience with Frederick, and he realizes that it might well literally be true.  Who knows how many names Jackson Mead has had over the centuries?

The two men talk about politics, and the expected public opposition to the bridge, as well as Praeger’s upcoming campaign for Mayor.   Mead is confident that this bridge will be the one to accomplish his ultimate goal.  He does deny that he was the builder of the Golden Gate Bridge (not very convincingly), and Hardesty lets that pass.  He also declares his neutrality in the conflict between Mead and Praeger.  “Things seem to be in balance, and my inclination is to let them stay that way.”  He’s wrong, of course, which he’ll discover soon enough.

We end with Mead answering one final question: what will the bridge be called?

“The name isn’t important, but we’re going to call it Battery Bridge.”

Whew!  A lot is going on.  Everything is in motion now, and nearly all the pieces are in play as the story moves towards its conclusion.

And I think we can see the shape of that conclusion.  We’re definitely headed towards something earthshaking.  Praeger can see it.  Jackson Mead is expecting it, as the opposition to his bridge begins to grow.  And the very name of the bridge suggests it.  In the Ring Cycle, it’s Wotan’s desire to get out of the bargain he made with the Giants in building Valhalla that ultimately leads to the ring becoming cursed, and eventually the end of the world in fire and water at the conclusion of the cycle.  At the end of the first opera of the cycle, Das Rhinegold, Wotan and his fellow gods cross the Rainbow Bridge, ascending to Valhalla, setting in motion their own destruction,.  What events will be set in motion by the building of Jackson Mead’s rainbow bridge?  Hang on, we’ll find out soon enough!

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2 Replies to “Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 4, chapter 2 – “Battery Bridge”)”

  1. I might be wrong about the significance of Lake seeing all the people who ever lived but there have already been references to time being meaningless and I took this to be a giant mashup of everybody across time.

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