Tag: Winter’s Tale

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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Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 3, chapter 2 – “Peter Lake Returns”)

Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 3, chapter 2 – “Peter Lake Returns”)

The action of part 3 picks up, naturally in the midst of a brutal – yet beautiful – winter.  It’s the first such winter after “several” years without any real, proper winters.  (Helprin is playing loosely with time here, but, given what he told us in the previous chapter, that’s hardly a surprise).  But for pedantry’s sake: Virginia arrived in Manhattan at the end of 1994 (we can be relatively certain of this because Hardesty arrives at Mrs. Gamely’s home during the second brutal Coheeries winter in a row, and he doesn’t end up there until a few months after September of 1995),  So by “several years” Helprin can’t mean more than two, because we’re in 1998 now).

We step back into the plot aboard the Staten Island Ferry.  The boat is stuck in the ice of the harbor and returning to Manhattan, when a passenger spots something fall from the sky with a bright streak of light.  He points out where he saw it land, and, sure enough, someone is out there.  A wounded man, with sword cuts all over his body, and, he thinks, possibly bullet wounds, too.  But he doesn’t know who he is, who might have given him the wounds, or how he ended up in the harbor (Helprin doesn’t play with the reader, though – he tells us that this is Peter Lake right from he start).

Peter doesn’t recognize himself in the mirror, and passes out just as he’s brought to a waiting ambulance when the ferry docks.  He wakes up sometime later, handcuffed to a bed in St. Vincent’s Hospital (the same hospital Hardesty makes a note of when he walks past it a couple of chapters ago).  He can’t understand what’s going on – he doesn’t recognize plastic, or the computer monitors showing his vital signs, and when one of the doctors mentions identifying him via fingerprints, he has no idea what those are.  He’s sedated after he mouths off at the doctor, and doesn’t wake again for five days.  When he does, he’s no longer chained to the bed, and he finds a strange young woman at his bedside.  He assumes she’s a teenager, probably from another ward of the hospital (due to the “slingshot” in her pocket that he doesn’t recognize as a stethoscope; and also due to the fact that, being used to the world of 1915, he has no idea that women can be doctors).

After a confused, but pleasant, conversation, she sedates him again.  When he awakes the next time – much sooner than she expects, and almost completely healed, although that ought to be impossible – he realizes that she truly is a doctor.  He also takes note of the monitors and how their lights and beeping correspond to his activity.  He begins to form an idea, that it is no longer 1915.  He impresses the doctor by his healing, and also by his knowing what time it is despite not having a clock nearby.  He can tell by the sound of the police horses – it’s a shift change, and knowing how far the hospital is from the stables.  And the doctor confirms he’s correct.  But he throws her for a loop when he asks about the El.  She has no idea what he’s talking about.  He explains – elevated trains.  But there aren’t any.

“Oh, maybe in the Bronx, or Brooklyn somewhere.  But not in downtown Manhattan.”

Certainly not in 1998.  Peter convinces her to let him see for himself.  She unhooks his IV, and, when he asks, tells him what year it is.  Then she leads him to the roof.

“If this is a joke, I’ll kill you,” she said, wondering how she could believe what she believed and think what she had thought.

Peter visualizes what he knows ought to be out there when the door opens.  But he knows it’s not so.

“It’s funny,” Peter Lake stated.  “I don’t think that this notion I have could be so, but I’m afraid to open the door.”

“Just push it,” she said.

He did.

And we end on that.  We know what Peter will see, but I love the way Helprin leaves us just at that moment without going farther.  It’s a perfect ending to the chapter.

And now we’ve got both Peter and Athansor in the modern world, ready to take their places alongside Virginia and Hardesty and everyone else we met in part 2.  We also know for certain now (as with Athansor) that the transition from 1915 to the end of the 20th century was instantaneous; they both return with all the wounds they suffered in the fight against Pearly on the Brooklyn Bridge still fresh.

The one criticism I have of this chapter is that Peter’s doctor is a one-shot character.  We don’t get a name for her, and we won’t see her again in the book, which is a shame.  She’s a great character, and I’d personally like to know a lot more about her.  And I think she could easily have played some sort of role in the events that will come.

But we’ll have to leave her behind, and pick up the story of Hardesty and Virginia in the next chapter…

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Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 3, chapter 1 – “Nothing is Random”)

Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 3, chapter 1 – “Nothing is Random”)

We’re onto part 3 of the book now, which is titled “The Sun…and the Ghost”.  We’re a little past the halfway mark of the book, and by the end of this part, the plot is going to speed up quite a bit.  Before that, though, we’re going to meet an old friend, and get some history on the two great newspapers of Helprin’s New York City.

Before that, though, we have a very short (2 pages) prologue chapter to this section of the book, in which the author makes explicit some of the things we’ve been discussing throughout the novel.  Basically, he addresses the paradox between predestination and free will.

Nothing is random, nor will anything ever be

This is how he opens the chapter, and then Helprin gives us a litany of examples, from the weather, to the daily routine of the milkman to the behavior of individual electrons

going precisely where they are supposed to go.

How is that to be squared with what Helprin terms “wonderful anarchy” ?  As he puts it:

the milkman chooses when to arise, the rat picks the tunnel into which he will dive when the subway comes rushing down the track from Borough Hall, and the snowflake will fall as it will.

Helprin’s answer?

Nothing is predetermined; it is determined, or was determined, or will be determined.  No matter, it all happened at once, in less than an instant, and time was invented because we cannot comprehend in one glance the enormous and detailed canvas we have been given

And he directly says what some of his characters have theorized: time can be transcended, if only one steps back far enough to see it all.

The universe is still and complete.  Everything that ever was, is; everything that ever will be, is – and so on, in all possible combinations.

And he comes around to justice; the final words of this very brief chapter are:

when all is perceived in such a way as to obviate time,justice becomes apparent not as something that will be, but as something that is.


Almost everyone in the book is seeking justice, perfection, the promised land.  And Helprin has just given us the secret of how to find it…

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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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Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 2, chapter 4 – “A New Life”)

Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 2, chapter 4 – “A New Life”)

We open a new chapter by meeting yet another new character.  We’re on a sailboat somewhere off the Atlantic coast, manned by brothers Asbury and Holman Gunwillow.  They encounter a fierce gale which damages the boat, sends Holman overboard and knocks Asbury unconscious.  When he awakens, he realizes that he’s been out for at least a full day – possibly longer.  His brother is long gone, far beyond any possibility of rescue – the boat must have been carried hundreds of miles during Asbury’s sleep.

Instinct tells Asbury to head for land, to head north-northwest.  It will come as no surprise to know that he’s headed directly for New York city.

We flash back to Asbury’s memory of a long-ago talk with his grandfather.  His grandfather claims to be at least 175 years old, as he remembers what he was doing prior to the onset of the Civil War.  He realizes this is obviously impossible:

“No one lives to be that old.  And besides, I’m not clear on how the time went.  But I remember, for example, where we lived during the war.”

He lived in Manhattan, naturally.  Perhaps he passed through the cloud wall at some point, and was deposited into the future?  He might well have lived before the Civil War as he recalls, before skipping years – or decades – to simply continue on after the clouds jumped him forward in time.  I actually think that’s fairly likely, given everything we’ve seen so far (and knowing what’s yet to come).  It’s especially likely considering what he tells young Asbury about the city, and why Asbury needs to go there someday.

“Catch it before it gets too late – the engines.”

“What engines?”

“All of ’em.  They’re all set up to play one sound.  They’re tuning, I think.  It isn’t right yet, but it’s music.  One will lead.  The others will follow – and that’ll be the day.”

We’ve heard similar things, from Peter Lake, and Mootfowl as well.  Is Asbury’s grandfather gifted with this vision due to his age, or was it imparted to him by – or within – the cloud wall as it moved him in time?  Whatever the reason, he makes Asbury swear to go to New York, and then we return to the present, where Asbury hears the thundering sound of a city, and knows without doubt what city it is.

We then switch perspectives and rejoin Hardesty Marratta.  It’s been several months since we last left he and Virginia, and they’ve engaged in a long, slow, courtly courtship.  Hardesty takes a job at the Sun, and finds a comfortable partnership – and rivalry – with Praeger de Pinto.

Briefly, Helprin throws in an aside that I take to be a moment of bragging, which I can’t brgrudge him:

Whenever (Hardesry) passed St. Vincent’s Hospital, he felt as if he were inside a great Russian novel.

I think Helprin can be forgiven for implying that he’s writing something that’s the equal of the best of the renowned Russian literature (there are some similarities in tone and scope with “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov which would well be worth an extended read and discussion like this one…).

Back to the narrative, Hardesty, despite his job, and his love for Virginia, decides he has to leave, to fulfill his obligation to his father and seek out the perfectly just city.  Virginia, unsurprisingly, does not take it well:

She cried fiercely, and then she attacked him.  She tried to pull his hair, and landed a punch or two.  “Get out!” she screamed in rage.  When he did get out, she slammed the door and bolted it, and he heard sobbing that broke his heart.

His friend, Sun artist Marko Chestnut, does his best to keep Hardesty from leaving on the ship he’d booked passage on, but Hardesty, undeterred, jumps into the Hudson River and swims after it.  The ship stops to retrieve him from the fouled waters of the river, and he’s given one of the Captain’s own robes and invited to dine at his table that night, occasioning one of my favorite lines in the whole book:

It is difficult, he reasoned, to refuse an invitation from someone in whose bathrobe one is.

But he does not, ultimately, have that dinner.  The ship encounters what looks like a fogbank – except that it stretches from the base of the sea to the sky, and it goes on for at least thirty miles in each direction.  Hardesty recognizes it as the cloud wall from Virginia’s handed-down descriptions of it, and he knows that if he remains aboard ship, he will never return to Virginia – at least not in this era.  So he decides to jump ship.  He makes it off the boat just as it’s swallowed up by the wall, and the clouds do touch him:

As it touched Hardesty’s heel, he felt rapturous pleasure spreading through his entire body, not the kind of sensuality which robs and burns the soul, but something elevated and ecstatic that he knew might take him very far.  Still, everything in him told him that the city was better.

This is really interesting.  He’s able to resist the cloud wall, just as Peter Lake could, on occasion, reason with it.  And it’s also notable that he is firmly set in the real, material world, despite having the ability to experience and understand worlds beyond.  We’ll see more about this later in the book.

Hardesty sinks under the water, and when he resurfaces, the cloud wall, and the ship, are gone.  But soon enough, a sailboat encounters him – Asbury’s boat, picking up his story from earlier int he chapter.  They converse about many topics on their journey to New York:

“Apart from natural laws, from the world as we know it,” Hardesty speculated, “maybe there are laws of organization which bind us to patterns that we can’t see and to tasks that we don’t perceive.”

Sound familiar?

Asbury agrees, and in return, Hardesty offers him his apartment, since once they arrive in the city, he won’t need it anymore – assuming Virginia would take him back, of course.  Asbury doesn’t argue:

Asbury accepted, thinking that, the way things were going, to look at the place before he took it would be foolish.”

For his part, Hardesty heads straight for Virginia’s apartment, watches her in the window as she reads to young Martin, and remembers her words of warning to him:

“If your faith is genuine, then you meet your responsibilities, fulfill your obligations, and wait until you are found.  It will come.  If not to you, then to your children, and if not to them, then to their children.

Virginia hears Hardesty outside, knows it’s him, and the chapter ends with the reunion of the lovers.

So a lot of callbacks to part 1 of the book here, and further setup for what’s to come on part 3 and 4.  We’re almost done with this short second part of the book; we have only one more character to meet, and in our next post, we shall be introduced to Christiana Friebourg…

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Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 2, chapter 3 – “In the Drifts”)

Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 2, chapter 3 – “In the Drifts”)

We open a new chapter with a funeral, of someone we haven’t heard of – a shipping magnate, Vittoro Marratta of San Francisco.  We’re given a brief rundown of his life, a breakdown of his vast wealth, and then we go straight to the reading of his will.

We learn that Vittoro has two sons, Hardesty and Evan, and the will sets up a situation that calls to mind Jacob and Esau from the Old Testament.  One son will inherit everything; the other one will receive a gold salver that Vittorio carried with him from Italy when he came to the U.S. after World War I.  The younger, and far more responsible and respectable son, Hardesty, is to choose.

Hardesty, to the shock of everyone, chooses the salver, leaving a massive commercial fortune in the hands of a drug-addicted wastrel.  Hardesty makes the decision because he sees through to his father’s intent, and because the salver, in his estimation, imposes demands every bit as taxing as running a multi-national shipping empire.

The salver is pure gold, with an inscription listing four values: Honesty, Courage, Sacrifice and Patience.  In the center is a phrase inlaid in white gold in the center:

For what can be imagined more beautiful than the sight of a perfectly just city rejoicing in justice alone.

Justice, what it means, and how it could possibly be seen in a city like New York, has been a topic of discussion throughout the book.  And recall, too, that the ship that brought Peter Lake to New York as an infant was the City of Justice. 

Hardesty collects the salver, rebuffs the questions and protests of his brother, and sets off, to see if he can find (somewhere in Europe, he imagines) the perfectly just city.

I’ll digress here for a moment to talk about Hardesty’s age, and a question of history.  This chapter begins in September of 1995, the date specified in Vittorio’s will.  Hardesty is described as being in his mid 30’s (like Virginia Gamely in the last chapter), so he was born around 1960 or so.  What’s interesting is that he’s also described as having fought in two wars.  If he joined the army in his late teens or early 20’s, that puts his enlistment anywhere from 1978 to 1985, and the wars anywhere from ’78 up until the early 90’s.  The book was published in 1983, and presumably took a couple of years at least to wrote.  So I’m curious what wars Helprin thinks America would have been fighting in that time.  There’s nothing at all in the text to guide us.  In real life at the time, the Soviets were mired in Afghanistan, and the U.S. was dealing with terrorist attacks in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East.  But there’s nothing that could reasonably be described as a war.

Moving on, Hardesty hops a freight train to begin making his way to the East Coast.  But his journey is quickly interrupted by the arrival of a fellow train-rider, Jesse Honey.  This is a total digression that doesn’t move the plot one inch, but it’s hilarious, and Jesse is an unforgettable character.  He means well enough, but he brings chaos in his wake; Hardesty is almost killed several times, and an entire freight train is destroyed, before they finally part company.

Hardesty continues on, spending a few months at a Montana sheep ranch (this is glossed over in half a page or so) and then, with the money he’s earned, he plans to catch the trans-continental Polaris train to New York.  He does so, and is immediately welcomed by a group of elderly men, gamblers all, who teach him how to play poker.  It’s a good experience for Hardesty in several ways; one of the men reminds him of his father, which is a comfort to him; and he also wins seventy thousand dollars (by sheer luck) over the course of the game.  But once he takes his leave of the gamblers, there’s trouble.  The train is caught in a blizzard somewhere in the wilds of upstate New York, far from anywhere, and it looks as though the food, fuel and supplies of anything that can be burned to produce warmth are running out.

We switch perspectives and visit Mrs. Gamely.  It’s a year after Virginia left for New York City, and this winter is even more severe, after a summer that was hot well out of the bounds of normal weather.  Mrs. Gamely is philosophical about this:

“God is treating us to fire and ice.  He must have something in mind.”

She’s visited by a neighbor, who informs her of the stranded train and inquires whether she can take in any passengers.  She’s got room for five of them, once the Lake of the Coheeries men have, on skis and sleds, rescued them and brought them back to town.  Hardesty, along with four others, is brought to Mrs. Gamely’s house and he takes an immediate liking to her.  For her part, when he translates the inscription on the salver for her, she lapses into memories:

She had once believed in miracles, shining cities, and a golden age.  She had learned, however, soon enough, that such things were only illusions.  But now she wasn’t quite sure.

She recalls when she was only 4 or 5 years old, a winter as cold as the one she’s currently experiencing, when the Penn family brought Beverly’s body to be buried in Lake of the Coheeries.:

She had been awakened by the pull of the stars, which hissed and crackled like an icy waterfall, and were dancing all over the sky, brighter than she had ever seen them…It was then, as she looked over the lake, that she had learned the true meaning of the word “arise.”

Remember her last words to her daughter: “Rise, Virginia.  rise and see the whole world.”  And now we know what she means by rising – on the day of Beverly Penn’s burial, Mrs. Gamely learned about rising.  And about stars that hissed and crackled (just as Beverly described).

That’s the last we see of Mrs. Gamely for a while; we return to Hardesty and follow him as he arrives in Manhattan.  She’s given him a letter to to deliver to Virginia (because Coheeries mail is “heteronomic and ludibund” and does not often get through).  But Mrs. Gamely has no idea where Virginia is or how to find her.  So Hardesty, logically, starts at the library.  There’s no luck there, but he does get a recommendation for a boarding house to spend the night, which happens to be right across the street from a theater.  The Coheeries theater.  Donated by the Penn family.  And inside the theater, painted on the dome, are the very words of the inscription on Hardesty’s salver.

Also of note is one of the old vaudeville acts playing when Hardesty visits: The Spielers, consisting of Dolly, Little Liza Jane and Bosca, the dark girl.  I’m honestly not sure what to make of them: are they here from their own time, brought forward by the Cloud Wall?  Or is this theater, like the town it’s named for, somehow out of time itself?

Hardesty decides to follow up on the Penn-Coheeries connection, which leads him to the offices of the New York Sun (or, more properly, the New York Morning Whale, and the New York Evening Sun).  He runs into Praeger de Pinto, who, after much conversation, offers to introduce him to Virginia the next evening (and, probably, to offer Hardesty a job as well).

Hardesty returns, sees Virginia, and falls for her instantly.  Virginia notices:

This showed a certain weakness of character, but it was a commitment she could not ignore.  Thought she tried to hang on to the steep slopes down which she felt herself sliding, after just a few minute she gave up entirely.

They walk back to Virginia’s apartment together, taking the most direct route through the dangerous Five Points neighborhood.  En route, they spot a huge horse pulling a wagon, a horse with many wounds.  A horse that is almost certainly Athansor.  We’ll see more about him two chapters ahead.

For now, we follow Hardesty and Virginia as they talk, and quickly get to the heart of things.  Virginia declares that this winter is a harbinger of extraordinary changes to come:

“These winters have not been for nothing.  They are the plough.  The winds and the stars are harrowing the land and battering the city.  I feel it and can see it in everything.  The anmials know it is coming.  The ships in the harbor rush about and have come alive because it is coming.  I may be dead wrong, but I do believe that every act has significance, and that, in our time, all the ceaseless thunder is not for nothing.”

Remember Isaac Penn’s  – and Beverly’s – thoughts about justice, and the connectedness of all things?    Virginia – and Hardesty – see it, too, and that makes them a perfect match.

And thus, as fast as a whiplash, a marriage was made one evening in winter, in a city sure to rise.

Whew!  That was a lot to get through!  There’s a lot to think about here, and more seeds planted for what’s to come.


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Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 2, chapter 2 – “Lake of the Coheeries”)

Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 2, chapter 2 – “Lake of the Coheeries”)

We jump back into the narrative, eighty or so years after Peter Lake and Athansor jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and into the cloud wall.  We’re not going to see them again for a while, but we have some new characters to meet.

And we begin with Virginia Gamely, a lifelong resident of Lake of the Coheeries.  We open with a beautiful description of the Hudson Valley leading up to the town, and the brutal – yet wonderful – winter that is currently gripping it.  And we come to the house of Mrs. Gamely, an elderly widow who lives there with her daughter Virginia, a lovely woman somewhere in her thirties, and her infant son Martin.

Mrs. Gamely is illiterate, yet has a vocabulary of several hundred thousand words, and some unique views of the world (or, perhaps not so unique among the residents of her town).  Helprin has a lot of fun with language in this chapter with Mrs. Gamely and her linguistic genius, which we’ll see later that Virginia has inherited, too.

At this moment, though, there are more important matters: the winter is worse than any in memory, and there’s not enough food for Mrs. Gamely, Virginia and the baby to make it through to the spring.  One night, Virginia has an extraordinary dream – something that has happened to her before.  She sees a great city, a city that is a living thing, a city that becomes her lover.  When she awakens, she knows that she dreamed the truth: her future is in that city (Manhattan, naturally):

She had always known that her future was in her, waiting to be shaken out

She explains to her mother that, if she and the baby go now, there’ll be enough food to last through the winter, no matter how bad it gets.  Mrs. Gamely finally agrees, once Virginia recounts the dream.  And she sends Virginia off with one last bit of wisdom:

“Remember, what we are trying to do in this life is to shatter time and bring back the dead.  Rise, Virginia.  Rise and see the whole world.”  Virginia did not know exactly what her mother had meant.

But I think we do.  If anything, though, Mrs. Gamely has it backwards.  It’s not shattering time, but putting past, present and future back together – or at least being able to see them for the one seamless whole that they are.  And as for bringing back the dead, we’ll get to that in part 4 of the book.

Virginia makes her way down the Hudson, via sleigh to an iceboat dock.  The iceboat isn’t running, however, so she stops at an inn.  The innkeeper offers her a room for the night, and then she’ll have to skate down to the dock to reach another dock where a cutter will be waiting, bound for the city.  Virginia dreams of skating, and lives exactly the journey she dreamed of the next day.

The journey is blocked by an impassable wall of snow that piled up overnight, but Virginia climbs up and over.  The innkeeper is horrified; it’s a nearly sheer wall.  But Virginia, having dreamed of this already, knows what’s to happen.  Near the top, she almost loses her nerve and begins to lose her grip, but she forces herself to imagine her triumph, and that vision carries her over.  At the very top is the bottom of the cloud wall, which dances her across and deposits her on the other side:

all because of the baby on her back, for whom allowances had to be made.

In part 1, remember that Peter Lake had the experience of sometimes negotiating with the cloud wall, so this is just par for the course.

Virginia and Martin cross over (and I think there may be more going on that is plainly stated – I have some questions about time that I’ll get to at the end of this post) and make it to their boat.  It’s stuck on ice, and the weight of little Martin (the last passenger to be brought aboard) cracks the ice and the boat is suddenly in open water.  As they sail down the Hudson, Virginia begins to think about the city she’s headed for:

the city would be cold, completely of itself, unconscious, that its every move would be transcendent, and that each of its hundred million flashing scenes would strike a moral lesson.

When she first catches sight of New York City:

she knew she was meant to be there.  It did not draw people to it the way it did for nothing.  It was God’s crucible, and she was on her way into it.

She and Martin wander the streets of Manhattan in the frigid cold before ending up in Grand Central Station, and looking into the window of the Oyster Bar, she sees a familiar face: Jessica Penn.  Yes, one of those Penns – daughter of Harry Penn, whom we last knew as a teenaged boy.  He’s now elderly, and has long since taken his father’s post as publisher of the New York Sun.

Virginia knows Jessica from childhood; the Penns spent summers at their home in the Lake of the Coheeries.  Jessica beckons Virginia in, and introduces her to the executive staff of the Sun.  The two we’ll get to know best are the editor in chief, Praeger de Pinto (he’s also Jessica’s fiance) and Marko Chestnut, the paper’s artist (I mentioned him as one possible candidate for the creator of the painting in the Penn basement in part 1):

One could, in a few lines, show the soul.  One could, if one had the courage.

Virginia sees that Marko does have that courage, in spades.

Virginia is drawn into conversation, and impresses the collected staff of the Sun with her vocabulary and insight.  Praeger invites her to visit the paper the next day for what Jessica informs her is more or less a job interview.  That night, she dreams about it, recounting in precise detail every step and every word – and, as has happened twice already in this chapter, it plays out exactly as she dreams (with one exception).

Praeger, after asking ehr to write about her impressions of the city, offers her a job on the spot.  She accepts, but she wants to start from the bottom:

“I’ve imagined great victories, and I’ve imagined great races.  The races are better.”

The one exception between her dream and the reality is a stop to buy Martin a cookie in Chinatown, which is sold to her by:

a fat Caucasian boy with slit eyes and a Chinese hat.  He seemed very strange.

No question but that he is Mr. Cecil Wooley.  It’s interesting that he should greet a new arrival from Lake of the Coheeries, a friend of the Penn family, and someone who will, as the story progresses, get caught up in the story of Peter Lake.

One more thing about this chapter – the question of time.  This chapter, although it’s not stated explicitly, takes place in 1994 (at least, the New York City action does).  I’m skipping ahead to say this, because in the next chapter, we learn that another year has passed, and the date is given as September of 1995.  But it’s hard to reconcile this.  Mrs. Gamely is an elderly woman.  We’ll learn in the next chapter that she was only a few years old when Beverly Penn died, back in 1916.  That would make her 85 years old here.  We also know that Virginia is 35 or so, which means that Mrs. Gamely had her when she was 50 (not impossible, but certainly eyebrow-raising).  In a much later chapter, Mrs. Gamely remembers taking a young Virginia (probably 10 years old or so) to greet her father as she returns after “the war” ended, on a troopship, only to be met by his commander, Harry Penn, who informs them that Mr. Gamely died in the war.  If Virginia were born around 1960, that places her father’s death at 1970.  But that doesn’t jibe with history as we know it.

I think the answer is something else – time, in Lake of the Coheeries, is not a constant.  The town is only loosely and inconsistently connected with the rest of the world (Virginia tells the Sun staffers that no one can get to it unless they are “a resident” – or, as we’ll see in the next chapter, by accident).

I don’t know exactly how to reconcile the times yet, but keep it in mind as we read on, and maybe it will become more clear.

Next up, we’ll meet our second new character, Hardesty Marratta…

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Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 2, chapter 1 – “Four Gates to the City”)

Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 2, chapter 1 – “Four Gates to the City”)

Onwards to part 2!  This section of the book is titled “Four Gates to the City” (as is the first chapter of the section).

Before we move forward, though, let’s take stock of where we are. We’ve just left the New York City of 1915-16, with the disappearance of Peter Lake into the “infinite fury” of the Cloud Wall.  Beverly Penn and her father are both dead, although Beverly, at least, had seen through to a new and different world before her passing, and Peter was given a glimpse of it as well.

Now we jump ahead eighty years, to the early 1990’s.  We’re still in New York, though, and this extremely brief chapter tells us how one may enter the great city.  In the past, we’re informed, cities had literal gates, built into protective walls.  As time went on, however, those gates disappeared, replaced by barriers more subtle and yet much harder to enter.

Some claim that the barriers do not exist, and disparage them.  Although they themselves can penetrate the new walls with no effort, their spirits (which, also, they claim do not exist) cannot, and are left like orphans around the periphery.

As with so much of this book, I think this is meant to be taken at least somewhat literally, and not just as flowery language or a metaphor.

What are these new, more subtle gates?  There are four of them:

Acceptance of responsibility (the east gate)

The desire to explore (the south gate)

Devotion to beauty (the west gate)

Selfless love (the north gate)

It was said that a city with entryways like this could not exist, because it would be too wonderful.

But of course it does exist, and we’re about to meet four characters in the next four chapters, each of whom will be passing through a different gate.  My interpretation (if you think differently, please chime in and share your opinion!) is that our new people come in as follows:

Virginia Gamely comes through the South gate.

Hardesty Marratta comes through the East gate.

Christiana comes through the North gate.

And Asbury Gunwillow comes through the West gate.

We’ll see how that pans out starting with the next chapter, when we revisit the Lake of the Coheeries and meet Virginia…

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Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 1, chapter 10 – “Aceldama”)

Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 1, chapter 10 – “Aceldama”)

We’ve come to the end of Part 1 with this chapter.

I never knew what the title of this chapter meant, or referred to, so I Googled it, and it turns out that Aceldama is pretty fraught with meaning.  It refers to a field near Jerusalem that’s associated with Judas.  In one interpretation (as told in Acts of the Apostles), Judas himself bought the field with the 30 pieces of silver he received for betraying Jesus, and he “burst open in the middle and all his intestines gushed out,” leading to the name Aceldama, which means “Field of Blood.”  In the Gospel of Matthew, the field is bought by the authorities of the Temple with that same 30 pieces of silver; in this telling, Judas returned the money to them, but, deeming it “blood money” and therefore unfit to be put into the treasury, it was used to purchase what became known as a field of blood.

I’m not sure whether Helprin is trying to refer to to either of those stories, or to the more general idea of a Field of blood, and a potter’s field.  But let’s see if the chapter sheds any light on the question.

We open with Peter contemplating Beverly and her increasingly difficult-to-understand pronouncements:

“I’m just like you,” she had told him.  “I come from another age.  But there are many things we must take care of now.”

Partly, Peter goes along with her simply because he loves her, but he begins to see truth in her delirious words.  He himself has had glimpse of similar things – hints of a larger plan, a process of justice underpinning the entire world.  And then he remembers an incident back when he was with the Short Tails, when Pearly Soames had emptied two pistols into a dark window, claiming that he had seen behind it the White dog of Afghanistan, “come to get him from another time.”

It’s with all these jumbled thoughts that Peter arrives at the Penn mansion to take Beverly to the promised New Year’s Eve date at Mouquin’s.  While they get ready, Beverly speaks of another vision – animals in the Heavens, bigger than stars – made up of stars – and Peter says he believes her.  Beverly answers that he doesn’t have to believe, because it’s the truth.  Finally, she says:

“They’re not just dreams.  Not anymore.  I dream more than I wake now, and, at times, I have crossed over.  Can’t you see?  I’ve been there.”

And with that, they’re off.  When they arrive at the usually lively dance hall, Peter is surprised to find it strangely quiet – even more so than on December 31, 1899, when it had been “as quiet as a church on the Fourth of July.”  This year is even more solemn (this is also the closest Helprin comes to pinning down a date for this portion of the story.  He refers to it as an “odd-numbered frozen year,” and the two references to World War I later in this chapter mean that it must be either 1913 or, more likely, 1915).

Even the arrival of Pearly Soames and the Short Tails does not liven things up.   In fact, Beverly’s mere presence paralyzes Pearly and his gang.  While they’re frozen in place, Beverly demands that Peter do something to get the party going.  He has no idea how to do so.  When Beverly declares, “It’s my last damned New Year.  I’d like to see some fire in it,’ though, things change.  She turns towards the doors, and at her glance, they fly open.  The cold air rushes in, stoking the fires.  The hands of the clock begin to race, and midnight strikes.  And then, as all the partygoers are overcome by the magic, the dancing begins, with Beverly at the center.

Afterwards, Beverly confesses to having been terrified, and Peter protests that he didn’t see any sign of it.  “That’s because it was so deep,” she explains.

With New Year’s Eve, we come to the end of Beverly’s part in the story (maybe):

By spring, Beverly’s soul had ascended.  She died on a windy gray day in March, when the sky was full of darting crows and the world lay prostrate and defeated after winter.  Peter Lake was at her side, and it ruined him forever.

He’s a changed man, but note this:

And for the rest of his days he would be oppressed by the image of her whitened emaciated body eternally motionless in a dark root-pierced grace – or so he thought.

(the italics are in the book)

So here’s one reference to a field of blood, a place outside of the holy city where Gentiles are buried (she’s buried not in Manhattan but in the Lake of the Coheeries).  Her father soon follows her in death, and the family is scattered: Willa and Jack up to the country and Harry to Harvard and then to fight in World War I (this is why I think we’re in 1915/1916; the war hadn’t yet begun in 1913, and 1917 is too late for him to spend even a year at college before going over to fight).

Peter is left behind, and disappears from society.  He and Athansor manage to feed themselves thanks to Peter’s talent for robbery, which is not even exercised consciously:

his hands were more loyal to his stomach than to his head.

One day in September, Peter finds himself in front of a movie theater, and goes inside to see what it’s all about.  He’s stunned by the bright light, and, really, by the whole process.  After a couple of short features, Peter witnesses a film called “The City in the Third Millennium.”  It’s a filmed portrait of the painting from the Penn house.  And the final segment of this film is called “As the City of the Future Burns.”  Definitely remember that!

Peter leaves the theater, somewhat in shock, and finds a bed for the night.  He has an incredibly vivid dream, in which Beverly returns to him, glowing in white, silver and blue, holding a bridle made of stars, or possibly diamonds.  In the dream, aware that he is dreaming, Peter goes to Beverly and grips the bridle.  It cuts his hand, and then the dream fades.

Meanwhile, not far from Peter’s refuge for the night, Pearly Soames is busy.  He’s got not only his Short Tails, but the remnants of just about every gang in the city, nearly 2,000 criminal soldiers, and he’s been organizing them for a major operation.  The police are bribed to stay out of the way, and other preparations have been made.  At dawn, the sun:

illuminated a massive army of squat criminal beings, who could not resist talking loudly to each other, because they hoped for blood.

Peter Lake awakens filled with energy, and Athansor seems to know that something is up: he’s nearly vibrating with energy.  Peter takes the time to notice that his hands are badly cut, although he can’t remember how or why.  He hears the sounds of Pearly’s army, mounts Athansor and emerges to see exactly what he’s facing.

Besides the 2,000 men, Pearly has equipped his army with pikes forty feet high, to prevent Athansor from jumping.  Heavy nets are mounted between buildings for the same purpose.  There’s only one way Peter and Athansor can go – onto the Brooklyn Bridge.  But that, too, has been equipped with cables and nets to prevent flight.

Peter’s one hope is that, if Pearly’s army rushes him, an escape route may open up in the confusion.  But Pearly has thought of even that.  He sends his men in a hundred at a time, keeping the test back to stop any chance of Peter getting away.

Together, Peter and Athansor kill the first hundred, but at a heavy cost in wounds and injuries.  And Peter sees that Pearly has another hundred, and yet another hundred after that, to continue the fight until its inevitable end.

This could not be borne.

He looked at the river below.  It was very far, too far.  But it was a lovely blue, and a much better way to die, if he had to, than upon the bloodstained boards of the Great Bridge.  There was nothing to lose.  They would jump.

And they do:

Athansor arched on visible waves of power.  He compressed himself into something almost round.  Then, with a roar, he unfolded in a long white silken movement, and flew into the air

Rather than falling, Athansor rises, speeding into the cloud wall.  After a time, he finally breaks through the clouds, and they’re into the black:

What Peter saw was what Beverly had described, and he was awed beyond his capacity for awe.

But he cannot breathe, and he knows he will die if he remains atop Athansor.  So he falls, plummeting back down, into the clouds, into the cloud wall:

And then, entirely forgotten, he vanished deep into its infinite fury.

And here ends part 1.  Whew!

So: Beverly is dead, although not completely gone – Peter’s dream of her is not simply a dream; it leaves behind a physical souvenir.  And remember that dreams are one way to cross worlds (if they’re not entirely separate and completely real worlds in themselves).

And Peter is gone, vanished, forgotten, but certainly not dead.  Remember “or so he thought” ?  That will be paid off later in the book.

And what of Aceldama?  Going back to the beginning of this post, should we be thinking of Judas here?  I’m not honestly sure.  Yes, the innkeeper who sheltered Peter on his last night betrayed him to Pearly, but he’s a throwaway character, not even named, so I don’t think we can give him much importance.  Is Pearly himself Judas?  No – if anything, he was the one betrayed by Peter, not the other way around,  And yet, we can’t fault Peter for saving the Baymen, or his friend Cecil Mature.

I’m back to thinking that it’s a reference merely to the place, and not meant to call Judas – or Jesus – to mind.  But it’s an open question, and I’m curious what others think of it.

In our next chapter, we’ll be jumping forward eighty years or so, and meeting a whole new – but familiar nonetheless – cast of characters…

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Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 1, chapter 9 – “The Hospital in Printing House Square”)

Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 1, chapter 9 – “The Hospital in Printing House Square”)

We’re getting close to the end of part 1; after this chapter, there’s only one more before we jump ahead eighty years.

In past readings, I haven’t known what to make of this chapter.  I didn’t really understand everything Helprin was trying to do here, but I think I’ve figured it out this time (or at least, I have AN interpretation of it, anyway!).

We open with a description of the ongoing winter as a war:

People struggled until exhaustion, giving everything they had, and the days were packed with trials and mysteries.

We see one of those mysteries on an afternoon sometime between Christmas and New Year’s, after the Penns and Peter Lake have returned to Manhattan.  The Mayor, his wife and several “favored flunkies” pay a visit to the Penn mansion.  One of the flunkies is the police commissioner, with whom Peter has something of a history.  It seems that during his career with the Short Tails, he carried on a correspondence of sorts with the commissioner, signing all his letters “Grand Central Pete, bunco and confidence,” which was how the police knew him at the time.

The commissioner doesn’t quite recognize Peter, but he’s suspicious, and so Peter heads up to the roof to consult with Beverly on strategy.  she suggests distracting him – and the entire visiting party – by showing them ” the painting.”

What painting?”

“There’s a painting in the basement.  You don’t know about it.”

Indeed not.

Isaac Penn soon leads everyone down a spiral staircase

deeper into the rock than some of the ladies cared to go

Even the Mayor is uneasy about the depths to which they are descending.  His feeble protest, that all this really isn’t necessary just for him, is answered by Isaac:

“In this infinite universe, whole worlds have been created for the instruction and elevation of a few simple souls.  Believe me, it’s no trouble for me to show you this painting

I wonder whether they’re not really in the basement of the Penn house when they finally reach the bottom of the stairs and hear – yes, hear – the painting.  I think it’s possible that they’ve crossed over into another world, or another time.

The room they find themselves in is huge, and the painting is described as at least 60 feet in length and 30 in height.  It also moves, and the sound it makes is clear to Peter – it’s the same sound as the cloud wall.  I wondered on previous readings if the painting was really a movie, projected on a screen, but I don’t think so.  I think it’s literally a painting, if one that is unlike any other artwork in existence at that time.

It’s a painting showing New York, but not the New York of 1915.  It’s a city of the future, with billions of moving lights, a painting in which the view changes from a high, almost Godlike perspective to the surface where individual people in the painting can be seen in detail.  Isaac is asked what sort of technique produced it, and what colors make up its palette:

“A new technique.  New colors.”

Isaac is asked who the artist is, and he gives only the initials: “MC” and says that no one will ever guess, or know, who it is.  I never had any idea, either, except for one guess: that it’s a reference to Jesus.  MC = “Master Carpenter.”  But that’s going very far outside the text, and while there’s no question that Helprin is dealing in Messianic imagery and references, it’s the Jewish Messiah who’s yet to come, not Jesus that he’s interested in, in this book.

Upon rereading this chapter yesterday, though, I realized who Helprin may be referring to.  There is a character with the initials MC in this book, and he is an artist, and he does work for the New York Sun.  We’ll be meeting Marko Chestnut in part 2 – but the book will have skipped ahead to the 1990s when we do.

If the past and the future are connected, though, then it stands to reason that the connection can go the other way.  And elsewhere, we’ll see the view expressed that from a far enough distance, there is no past, present or future – all are one, all events have happened, are happening and will happen together.

Perhaps the basement really is in another world – another time.  Or perhaps it, like the painting it contains, is far enough removed from the rest of the world that all times and all events truly can be seen as one thing here.  Or I could be completely wrong.  But that’s my interpretation of this scene, which has baffled me on all my previous readings of the book.

We move on from the mysterious painting, and to another mystery.  Peter decides to go in search of the child he saw two decades ago, the night he returned to the home of the spielers.  He remembers the way, but en route, he sees a familiar face: his old friend from Reverend Overweary’s home and later the Short Tails, Cecil Mature.  Or, as he prefers to be called now, Mr. Cecil Wooley.

Peter is understandably surprised to see Cecil; the last time they were together was during the Short Tails’ ill-fated attack on the Baymen, after which Cecil ran headlong into the cloud wall and vanished.  Peter assumed his friend was dead, but clearly that’s not the case.   And Cecil has more surprises for Peter: he’s working for bridge-builder Jackson Mead, as Chief Structural Engineer – and above him, as overall Engineer in Chief is the Reverend Mootfowl.

Before he can reveal any more, Cecil spots his new employer, Mr. Mead, and dashes off to follow him.  They’re headed to Mead’s ship, where they will then sail to South America to build fourteen new bridges.  Peter follows atop Athansor, but when he gets to the wharf, the ship is already steaming out:

He had expected as much, and he was beginning to sense a pattern in such things.  According to Cecil, Mootfowl was once again alive.  Peter Lake wondered what would be the fate of the many others who lived amid the city’s complicated machinery and hearthlike engines.

If there is no past, present or future, but one vast now (if only one has the perspective to see it), then what does death even mean?  I think that’s key to the whole book.

Peter realizes where he is, near to the place the spielers called home all those years ago.  But the old tenement in which they resided is gone, replaced by a massive industrial building.  He finds his way inside, and sees a vast room, so large that he can’t even see its limits.  The description of the cranes, controlled from “houselike lighted boxes” makes this space seem even larger inside than it looked from outside (I very much doubt that Helprin is a “Doctor Who” fan, or was one when this book was written in the early 1980’s, but the idea that the inside of this facility is in another world or dimension from the outside surroundings fits right in with the rest of the book all the same).  Peter can hear the same white noise that he associates with the cloud wall, which by this point is no surprise at all.

He finally encounters a workman, who informs him that this building is a “relay station”

“For what?”

“For the power that comes in here.”

“From where?”

“I don’t know.  It’s just a relay station.”

I think the power is not coming from any conventional, Earthly source.  This place may be a spot that connects worlds or times (or both).

The workman does remember what used to be here, and when Peter questions him about the child he’s searching for, he’s directed to the nearest hospital, the one in Printing House Square (which as we’ll learn later, and not at all coincidentally, is the home of the New York Sun).

Peter goes, and eventually finds a doctor toiling away in the morgue.  This leads to a digression where Helprin expounds on his personal politics.  Although i happen to agree with him, it’s a  somewhat clumsy monologue and it very much sticks out (there are other places where, although it’s clear that Helprin is making his own views known, it’s handled with more subtlety).

The lecture ends with the doctor declaring that there’s no possible hope of finding the child.  The odds would be poor if it had been twenty hours; nearly impossible if it had been twenty days.  But twenty years?

“you might as well go to a wheat field in Kansas and try to trace an individual grain that fell off the stalk two decades before you got there.”

In any case, it wouldn’t matter according to the doctor (who has, obviously, not been granted the vision vouchasfed to Beverly, Athansor, Pearly and others) because

“The city is burning and under siege.  And we are in a war in which everyone is killed and no one is remembered.”

What, Peter Lake asks, should he do, if that is true?  The doctor asks in return, if there is anyone he loves.  WE all know the answer to that:

“Then go home to her.”

“And who will remember her?”

“No one.  That’s just the point.  You must take care of all that now.”

We already know this is wrong; Beverly will be remembered, and, really, no one will be forgotten in the end.  But he is right that Peter Lake has a lot to take care of, as we’ll see in the next chapter.

So that’s my interpretation of this short – but hugely important – chapter.  I’m curious what other readers think of it. Am I completely off the mark?  There’s a lot here, and many ways to interpret it…

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