The Gift of a Book, Part I


Is Helprin writing prose or poetry? Sometimes they blend. And physical descriptions lead to, or blend with, spiritual meditations.

He is very, very good at physical description (as well as the other things). I think I notice this especially, and admire it especially, because I am poor at it. I find it a strain to describe things physically. For Helprin, it seems like falling out of bed.

Incidentally, he could describe falling out of bed as a physicist would describe it, as a psychologist or shaman would describe it — whatever.

Early on, we meet Central Park — a central place in this story. In Sunlight and in Shadow is possibly the New Yorkiest book ever written. And there have been many of them. In graduate school, I took a whole class on the literature of New York (and I’m pretty sure I hadn’t been there at that point).

Several years ago, I went up to the apartment of a tycoon friend of mine. It was on the 79th floor, in Columbus Circle. Central Park was a strip. It looked like a dollar bill — a perfect dollar bill. That size, that shape.

And, looking all around me — way up the Hudson, then beyond Long Island, or so it seemed — I realized as never before just how watery the New York area is. In Sunlight and in Shadow is very watery, as well as New Yorky.

If you read the prologue, you have to keep reading — you can’t help it. And you know the prologue will come clear by the end. You suspect you will not like the ending. You fear it will not be a happy one. But you know things will be clear, one way or the other.

Chapter 1 begins, “If a New York doorman is not contemplative by nature, he becomes so as he stands all day dressed like an Albanian general and doing mostly nothing.” I don’t know if Mark knows this — I don’t think he’s lived in New York for a long while — but many, many doormen in New York are of Albanian origin. Some come from Montenegro, or their parents do. But these are Albanian-speaking Montenegrins.

Hell, Mark probably knows this perfectly well.

His main character is named Harry — Harry Copeland.

His formal name was Harris, and though it was his grandfather’s he didn’t like it, and didn’t like Harry much either. Harry was a name, as in Henry V, or Childe Harold, that, sounding unlike Yiddish, Hebrew, or any Eastern European language, was appropriated on a mass scale by Jewish immigrants and thus became the name of tailors, wholesalers, rabbis, and doctors.

Funny how the classic English names became, in America, Jewish names: Norman, Irving, Seymour, Milton, Walter, Howard, etc. Jewish parents wanted their kids to be strictly Anglo, at least in name. And they turned those names “Jewish.”

Today, of course, every Gentile boy is named Joshua.

Anyway, Mark continues,

Harry was one’s uncle. Harry could get it at a reduced price. Harry had made it into the Ivy League, sometimes. Harry could be found at Pimlico and Hialeah, or cutting diamonds, or making movies in Hollywood, or most anywhere in America where there were either palm trees or pastrami — not so much leading armies at Agincourt, although that was not out of the question, and there was redemption too in that the president was named Harry and had been in the clothing business.

(In Sunlight and in Shadow begins in May 1946.)

Now, some may write as well as Helprin. Some may write better (though this is a stretch). But no one writes like that — no one, but Mark. You may not like that writing, which is fine. But no one writes like that, except Mark. One could recognize it at 300 yards.

Harry, writes Mark, “could replay with such precision and intensity what he had seen, heard, or felt that these things simply did not lapse from existence and pass on.”

Ladies and gentlemen, that is Mark — trust me.

“The last swimmer had left the water ten or fifteen minutes earlier, but it was still moving in barely perceptible waves repelled by the walls and silently rocking, lifting, and depressing the surface, though only a keen eye could tell.”

Uh-huh — an eye like Mark’s.

One more quotation, before I knock off for the day. Harry, fresh from the war, had learned that “civilization, luxury, safety, and justice could be swept away in the blink of an eye; and that no matter how apparently certain and sweet were the ways of peace, they were not permanent.”

That is a running theme of Mark’s books, stories, and articles, and that should be a fact plain as day to all. But is it?

Thanks and see you tomorrow.