The Gift of a Book, Part II

Mark Helprin


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!’”


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.” 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.