Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 4, chapter 5 – “Abysmillard Redux”)

Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 4, chapter 5 – “Abysmillard Redux”)

We’ve got one more short chapter before Helprin really puts his foot on the accelerator and doesn’t let up for the remainder of the book.

We open with Craig Binky, who’s in poor spirits.  Praeger de Pinto turned on him during the recently-ended mayoral campaign.  He still has no idea what’s in the giant ship out in the river, and he’s lost face with his wealthy friends by losing out in the faddish game of church-buying (the half-dozen Baptist churches he bought are “a pretty poor showing”).

He resolves to do something about his ignorance of the ship, at least, but, as with most Binkian schemes, things don’t go quite as planned.  He spends $100,000 to find out the names of Jackson Mead, Reverend Mootfowl and Mr. Cecil Wooley, which everyone else already knows.  He then (this is one of the few points where the book really dates itself) goes to seek information from the “National Computer.”  It’s not really fair to knock the author, though, considering the commonly-understood state of computer technology when he wrote the book.

At any rate, even though he pays $1,000,000 just to ask one question of the machine, he gets no answer.

He knew no thing of Jackson Mead, and everyone else did.

Even the lowliest, most abysmal creature knows – even Abysmillard, who we met way back in part one.  He’s one of the Baymen – the last of them, having survived to the end of the second millennium.  Helprin takes us through Abysmlllard’s long and unspeakably sad journey through the century.  He had no friends, no companions:

The Baymen were not famous for bathing, and, in not bathing, Abysmillard was their champion by far.  He had to have his own hut on his own acre, and this for the sake of people who liked to eat live eels.

Despite his monstrous, disgusting nature, and the fact that even people who ate live eels were repulsed by him, Abysmillard harbored a secret belief that one day, he would

become a bright and graceful creature that everyone loved.  As the years passed, he waited for his own molting, infused with a single purpose and strengthened by a single expectation.

Eventually, this comes to pass.  Over the decades, as the Baymen are killed off by the constant encroaching of civilization, he lives on.  Finally, now, only weeks before the turn of the millennium, he’s the only one left.  Abysmillard is forced from his home, such as it is, by the construction of Jackson Mead’s bridge.  Abysmillard sees what is being done, and he recalls the songs of the Baymen, specifically the Thirteenth Song, which describes the last days

when a solid rainbow springs from the ice to leap the white curtain, and on its arc of beating lights are a thousand smiling steps.

Will Mead’s Rainbow Bridge be a literal rainbow?  Abysmillard thinks so, but he won’t be around to see it.  He’s forced further from his home in search of food, and, alone on the ice, he takes his final walk.

New York Harbor, meanwhile, is filled with people.  It’s completely frozen over, and a whole impromptu city forms on the ice.  But one morning, after all the tents and people have vanished, Peter Lake and Asbury Gunwillow are at work on the Sun’s motor launch, and Asbury spots something out on the ice.  It looks like, and in fact is, a person.  A man, frozen to death.

And Peter recognizes Abysmillard, who was there when he was found by the Baymen, a century ago.  He explains who they were and how they lived.

“He must have been the last one,” Asbury said, unnerved by the savage and unfamiliar face of Abysmillard.

“No,” said Peter Lake.  “I am.”

And on that upsetting and prophetic note, the chapter ends.  It certainly seems that we’re headed for something apocalyptic.  The Baymen song talks of the “last days’ and we witness their near extinction in this chapter.  Praeger foresees an Armageddon-like battle that’s been put off for a century or more but is now unavoidable.  And for the Wagnerians, remember that the seemingly triumphant end of Das Rhinegold, with the Gods crossing the Rainbow Bridge, leads directly to their end in fire and water at the climax of Gotterdammerung.

And it all starts with the next chapter…


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3 Replies to “Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 4, chapter 5 – “Abysmillard Redux”)”

  1. I finally gave in and just read to the end of the book last night. I’ll look forward to your comments on the remaining chapters because even though I enjoyed the book a great deal, I wasn’t sure what to make of some of the events at the end.

    1. I’ve read it several times, and I still don’t understand everything Helprin was trying to say. I think I have more of a handle on it this time, though, analyzing each chapter more critically.

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