The Gift of a Book, Part II

by Jay Nordlinger

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.

I have said that In Sunlight and in Shadow is a paean, or hymn, to New York. You want to know a hymn to Britain? Another Helprin novel, Freddy and Fredericka. The Brits should be down on their knees in gratitude to Mark for that book.

There’s London in the new one, by the way — marvelous vignettes of (wartime) London.

A rich and pedigreed New York lady is quoted as saying, “To live without chauffeurs is to live like an animal.” You know, I can pretty much sign on to that, though I’ve never had a chauffeur. I know what you mean, lady. I feel your pain.

I love this: “As a rule, [Catherine’s] bearing was uncompromising, and she held her head as if her name had just been called.”

Mark describes her in a way that may take your breath away, and then says, “She was, like many, though not everyone by any means could see it, beautiful, just beautiful, beyond description.”

Uh, no — not beyond his powers of description. I have to disagree with him there, no matter how extraordinary she is.

(When I write “beyond description,” I usually do so to cover my own inability to describe. But Mark doesn’t have to.)

A stage director in this book has a uniform idea of everything “west of the Hudson and east of Santa Monica Boulevard.” I know people just like this.

wonderful passage: “They greeted one another explosively,” certain New Yorkers in certain neighborhoods did. “‘Hey! Vinnie!’ they might shout, as if Vinnie, whom they had seen half an hour before, had just come back from the dead. ‘Hey hey hey!’”

Perfect.

Helprin speaks of a time of life when a person can “do little but rest in the kind of comfortable chair that is to the end of life what a cradle is to the beginning.”

This made me want to avoid getting too comfy in comfortable chairs.

Several times, Mark writes “Porto Rican,” just as people say it — they don’t say “Puerto Rican,” they say “Porto Rican.” Dictionary.com tells me that Porto Rico is the “former official name (until 1932) of Puerto Rico.”

Interesting. Never knew. If we’re going to say “Porto,” and not “Puerto,” maybe we should go back to the old spelling.

I think you’ll like this, as I did: Understudies make regular performers nervous — “[U]nderstudies are to performers what colonels in dictatorships are to their chiefs of state.”

Back to language for a minute? Mark notes that New Yorkers say “on line,” rather than “in line.” You wait on line, you don’t wait in line. New Yorkers are the only people in America who say this — possibly the only people in the world who say it. And when you tell them that, they’re often shocked. They don’t know it (and how could they, really?). (Maybe by watching television.)

I’ll tell you when I first heard about this. Not in New York. I was in Ann Arbor, Mich., my hometown, in Borders Books — the original Borders. (It had not yet become a chain.) Someone said to another person, “Are you on line?” A third person, overhearing this, said, “There’s a New Yorker.”

Funny how I remember that. I can’t really remember what I saw and heard this morning.

In Sunlight and in Shadow has many and glorious descriptions of the water around New York, and around Greater New York. Once, I asked Bill Buckley what was the most beautiful area he had ever sailed in. He had sailed all over the world — literally, all over the world. He said, first, Long Island Sound, and then he said New England.

He lived on Long Island Sound. How nice to love and appreciate where you live.

He also had a strong piece of advice: See the Azores. Whatever you do, before you’re through, see the Azores. Or did he say Ozarks? I can’t remember.

(Just kidding — though I’ve seen the Ozarks, and they are wonderful.)

Mark describes Mafia goons — men who “looked as if they were starving for violence that the world in its cruelty refused to provide.”

Have you ever seen this? Ever noticed it?

. . . Evelyn, were she in the slightest bit malevolent, could concentrate upon [Harry] the female death ray that only a mother-in-law or potential mother-in-law can deploy, that comes from frustration of a hundred types, that is as old as the monkeys, and for which there is no antidote.

One more bit, before I go. This same woman, Evelyn, dislikes popcorn. “She went to the movies only at private screenings or premieres, where popcorn was verboten. She didn’t like the smell. She didn’t like the sound. And she didn’t like exiting a theater in a crowd of people whose hands and lips were covered with rancid butter.”

I have a feeling — just a feeling — that this is true of the author, Helprin. I think I’ll ask him.

Anyway, thank you, dear readers, and see you tomorrow.