The Gift of a Book, Part II

Mark Helprin


Editor’s Note: This week, Jay Nordlinger is writing about Mark Helprin’s latest novel, In Sunlight and in Shadow. For Part I of the series, go here.

I have mentioned, or at least suggested, that this book is a paean to New York. It’s many things, but that’s one of them. Here is a sentence from very early on in the book: “To be in New York on a beautiful day is to feel razor-close to being in love.”

The book is also, of course, a paean to love — to romantic love, surely, but to love, or loves, more broadly as well.

Mark is unmodern, old-fashioned, because he’s a deep feeler. He takes things seriously. Not that he’s grim — often he’s playful, even goofy. He has a serious weakness for a pun. But he doesn’t think everything’s stupid or meaningless. Irony is not his hallmark, and neither is cynicism. He’s a little bit out of place in our modern world, which doesn’t bother him that much, I get the feeling.

Our world loves a hook-up culture, a Hollywood culture, a divorce culture; Mark is more interested in a fidelity culture. What a glorious dinosaur he is (and he has allies, even if they’re not a majority).

Whatever you think of Manhattan, says Mark, it has “so little about it of the dead” that, for centuries, you could not be buried there and were “forced instead to spend eternity in Brooklyn, Queens, or New Jersey.”

That’s on page 8. On page 373, two characters are looking at Manhattan from Weehawken, N.J. One says to the other, “We’ll probably die there . . . I hope so — I wouldn’t want to die in New Jersey. No offense to New Jersey . . .”

Well, I couldn’t help thinking of the late mayor Ed Koch — who said, more than once, that he wouldn’t want to be buried in New Jersey. The thought was “so distressing,” he said. His parents are buried in New Jersey, I believe. But he insisted on Manhattan.

And got it. (We discussed this in an interview I had with him. He got just about the last plot in Manhattan, way up north, I believe — and was tickled pink.)

Throughout this book are descriptions of women — of one woman, in particular. Lavish, specific, stirring descriptions. Never porny. But often very sensual, yes.

“And what was a beautiful woman?” Mark says, or the narrator says. “For him,” meaning Harry (the main character),

beauty was something far more powerful than what fashion dictates and consensus decrees. It was both what creates love and what love creates. For Harry, because his sight was clear, the world was filled with beautiful women, whether the world called them that or not.

Hear, hear.

Chapter 2 begins as follows: “As even the moon has its virtues, so too does Staten Island.” I wrote in the margin, “Brutal.” (Mark continues, “But except in declarations erupting from the crooked faces of politicians, the borough of Richmond was no more a part of the city than Mars is a part of Earth.”)

Reading a newspaper, Harry has a “usual disciplined fashion,” in which he pauses “to burn into memory important facts and figures.” Bet you anything that’s just what the author does.

Harry “found himself staring at her” — her, the one who will consume his life — “without the ability to feign looking elsewhere.” Has that ever happened to you?

Many novels, memoirs, and poems, no doubt, have brilliant descriptions of falling in love — falling in love in a nutso, more-than-besotted way. I wonder whether any does as good a job, as thorough a job, as perfect a job, as In Sunlight and in Shadow.

All the senses are on fire in this book. It is a tumultuous, convulsive, somewhat exhausting book — although there are stretches, and generous stretches, of quietude and contemplation.

It turns out that the object of Harry’s affection — of his delirium — is taken. Not married, but engaged. I wrote in my margin, “Damn.”

What will have to happen? Well, in a billion books, movies, and so on, the betrayed one is made dislikable, so that the audience won’t mind the betrayal so much. They’ll probably even root it on. “He had it coming.”

And this, I’m afraid, is what happens. Yet Catherine’s financé is really, really dislikable. Really, really dislikable. The marriage is semi-coerced. So you think, at least after a chapter or two, “Okay.”

At least I think you think that.

There’s music in this book, including a whiff of “The Darktown Strutters’ Ball,” one of the greatest songs ever (and dating from 1917). Want to hear Alberta singing it, when she was an old lady? Go here.