The Pequod Review:
Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale is a difficult book to review. Its plot is episodic and disjointed, with awkward transitions from one scene to another. Helprin’s prose, while sometimes brilliant, is just as often clunky and overwritten, with elaborate descriptions that are more style than substance. Nonetheless, despite its flaws, Winter’s Tale is an enchanting fantasy novel whose extraordinary imagery (especially of a mythic version of New York City) is vivid and lasting. And it deals with the timeless theme of finding one’s moral and civic purpose in profound ways.
The book’s plot cannot be easily summarized. It is set mostly in the late 1800s, and centers on the coming-of-age story of Peter Lake, an orphan raised by clamdiggers on the New Jersey coast before being sent as a young adult to New York City. Peter quickly gets swept up in a rough and rowdy city in the middle of a great transformation:
New York had always been a city destined for the rule of dandies, thieves, and men who resembled hardboiled eggs. Those who made its politics were the people who poured gasoline on fires, rubbed salt into wounds, and carried coals to Newcastle. And its government was an absurdity, a concoction of lunacies, a dying man obliged to race up stairs. The reason for this condition was complex rather than accidental, for miracles are not smoothly calculated. Instead, they are the subjugation of apparent anarchy to a coherent design. Just as music must be like a hive of bees, with each note that strains to go its own way gently held to a thriving plan, a great empire depends for its driving force upon the elements that will eventually tear it apart. So with a city, which if it is to make it mark must be spirited, slippery, and ungovernable. A tranquil city of good laws, fine architecture, and clean streets is like a classroom of obedient dullards, or a field of gelded bulls — whereas a city of anarchy is a city of promise.
As Peter finds his way in New York, he takes on a variety of occupations both legitimate and criminal — mechanic, burglar, gang member, and eventually consort to a wealthy heiress. His adventures across the Manhattan neighborhoods bring him into contact with a Dickens-like cast of characters, including Jackson Mead (a master bridge engineer), Pearly Soames (the leader of the Short Tails gang), Beverly Penn (the wealthy daughter of a newspaper baron who falls in love with Peter), and Virginia Gamely (a famous newspaper critic who lives in the mythical Lake of the Coheeries in upstate New York). The book begins as a mostly realistic novel but shifts into fantasy and even science fiction, full of flying horses, guardian angels, resurrections, mysterious cloud walls, and time travel.
In its best moments, Helprin’s gorgeous prose seems to rise off the page. Here he considers the process of finding one’s identity and purpose in a new city:
Every city has its gates, which need not be of stone. Nor need soldiers be upon them or watchers before them. At first, when cities were jewels in a dark and mysterious world, they tended to be round and they had protective walls. To enter, one had to pass through gates, the reward for which was shelter from the overwhelming forests and seas, the merciless and taxing expanse of greens, whites, and blues — wild and free — that stopped at the city walls.
In time the ramparts became higher and the gates more massive, until they simply disappeared and were replaced by barriers, subtler than stone, that girded every city like a crown and held in its spirit. 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.
To enter a city intact it is necessary to pass through one of the new gates. They are far more difficult to find than their solid predecessors, for they are tests, mechanisms, devices, and implementations of justice. There once was a map, now long gone, one of the ancient charts upon which colorful animals sleep or rage. Those who saw it said that in its illuminations were figures and symbols of the gates. The east gate was that of acceptance of responsibility, the south gate that of the desire to explore, the west gate that of devotion to beauty, and the north gate that of selfless love. But they were not believed. It was said that a city with entryways like these could not exist, because it would be too wonderful. Those who decide such things decided that whoever had seen the map had only imagined it, and the entire matter was forgotten, treated as if it were a dream, and ignored. This, of course, freed it to live forever.
Elsewhere he is more aphoristic:
Justice can sleep for years and awaken when it is least expected. A miracle is nothing more than dormant justice from another time arriving to compensate those it has cruelly abandoned. Whoever knows this is willing to suffer, for he knows that nothing is in vain.
No one ever said that you would live to see the repercussions of everything you do, or that you have guarantees, or that you are not obliged to wander in the dark, or that everything will be proved to you and neatly verified like something in science. Nothing is: at least nothing that is worthwhile. I didn't bring you up only to move across sure ground. I didn't teach you to think that everything must be within our control or understanding. Did I? For, if I did, I was wrong. If you won't take a chance, then the powers you refuse because you cannot explain them, will, as they say, make a monkey out of you. Justice can sleep for years and awaken when it is least expected.
For all of its faults, Winter’s Tale is one of those beautiful books that takes up permanent residency in your mind. Its strong imagery and consistency of vision give it a more lasting power than other, superior novels. It is also a touching love letter to New York City, one that will cause you to never look at its landmarks (especially Grand Central Terminal) the same way again.