Impromptus

The Gift of a Book, Part III

by Jay Nordlinger

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

Billy Hale, who is Harry’s father-in-law, or future father-in-law, says, “Humankind, or at least American-kind, will lose its edge as we produce more and more pipsqueaks and everyone gets nice.” He’s saying this just after World War II, mind you. “Whole generations of pipsqueaks will be so f***ing nice you won’t be able to tell a man from a woman.”

I smile on thinking that Phil and Oprah were decades into the future. (Do people still know who Phil was, and is? Donahue. A very lucky guy, he married That Girl — i.e., Marlo Thomas.)

(I guess you wouldn’t be able to name a show “That Girl” these days. “That Woman”? Hang on, isn’t that what President Clinton said, about Monica?)

Billy Hale continues, “It will get worse and worse as people mistake nice for good. Hitler was nice, supposedly, most of the time. A lot of good that did. Luxury and prosperity breed pipsqueaks. A century from now the country won’t even be able to defend itself.”

Yow. Hope not true.

Listen to Mark — this is brutal. Maybe not untrue, but brutal (and fun).

. . . Park Avenue and its environs . . . were full of caked and powdered reptilian women and florid, panting men who lived to shop and eat, with muscles evolved mainly for approaching a maître d’, lifting a poodle, or carrying glistening packages.

In this book is a sinister young man — a sinister trust-funder — who, when a boy, “used frogs for shuttlecocks.”

At another point, Mark talks about some people whose day world is very different from their night world: “[A]t night, like cats, they found their essence.”

Here is a gang leader — a Mafia capo: “Like so many of the short-fused and explosive, he was often charming, graceful, and captivating. The pit viper betrays how it will strike not in its movements, which are feints, but in its eyes.”

Catherine learns something about Harry, and he wonders whether she will accept him, braving the consequences. Listen to this:

She said nothing for a long time, and then she smiled so softly, so subtly, that it was barely perceptible. And in this barely perceptible smile was a courageous declaration as wide as the whole world.

About Harry — and we’re understandably wild about him — Mark tells us,

. . . he was one of those people from whose eyes it was possible to see that he might be thinking ten things as you were thinking one, and that his intellectual labor consisted not in generating an answer, something to say, a bon mot, but in choosing the best and most appropriate from an ever-proliferating stock of striking observations and ideas that came effortlessly to the fore.

Mark is one of those people too, I’m here to tell you.

Although I remember a marvelous story told to me by David Pryce-Jones. A woman approached Kingsley Amis in an eating establishment. Amis was just about the wittiest and quickest person alive. She said to him, something like, “Mr. Amis, I’ve read your latest book, and although I enjoyed it, I found it not up to your usual standard.”

Veins bulging, and gripping the table, Amis said, “F*** you!”

I love that the wittiest, quickest man alive could only resort to that readiest, most inviting of resorts.

At a party of Broadway types, we meet Rolvag, a lyricist, “who made fun of Nebraska, where he was born and where his mother and father still lived, and who would regret that he did and, each time that he did, feel sorrow and shame, and yet persist, sadly.”

Have you ever known anyone like this? I have known many — though I’m not sure they felt sorrow and shame. Maybe they did. I’ve never thought about it, really. I’ve just assumed that they got a kick out of knocking their roots.

More from the party: “Wary of embarrassment, wanting to shine, lonely, fiercely competitive, savagely ambitious, and as tense as pulled crossbows, they were the typical guests at a New York dinner party . . .”

Yup.

I love this — and have believed it for years, although I wouldn’t have thought to put it this way: “Irony is only a term for a cowardly mocking of someone else’s true conviction.”

This insight, and formulation, is completely Helprinesque.

Catherine says, “[M]y friends in the theater would think we were prudes.” Harry responds, “Your friends in the theater f*** like a bunch of rabbits playing musical chairs. They go from one person to another because no one is sufficient.”

Yup. Exactly.

Let’s go back to the party. Observing Catherine and Harry, a woman named Andrea says, “I wish I had someone who would talk to me that way, as if no one else were in the room.” She says it “not caring how vulnerable she might appear in the eyes of her friends and acquaintances, for she had no one who would [talk to her that way], and at that moment she would have traded everything in the world that was clever for one simple thing that was true.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I have just quoted one of the greatest passages in the book — but there are 500 equal to it, and many that are better.

I want to quote something related to the bit about Nebraska, above:

Townsend Coombs was too young for his name, which properly belonged to a portly, middle-aged insurance salesman in a small town, though not the one in New Hampshire from which Townsend Coombs had come, but perhaps in Indiana or Ohio, or some other place that sophisticates, having visited for perhaps an hour, would then mock for eternity.

I have addressed this point in many, many music reviews. I did it just a few weeks ago. A performer, talking from the stage, will say something like, “So nice to be in New York, where I can sing songs by Poulenc. They just don’t get it in Davenport!”

At this, the audience will laugh like hyenas — and most of them are from places like Davenport. I always think people back in Davenport must be politer and more civilized.

Not to mention quieter. Damn, are New York audiences noisy: the paper-shuffling, the talking, the cellphones, the hearing aids, the teeth-sucking, the coughing . . .

In the passage quoted above, I think I would have written “soi-disant sophisticates,” rather than “sophisticates.” I know the type (or believe I do).

No need to get into the circumstances at the moment, but Harry has occasion to say, “You make it sound as if I would say something like, ‘Oh, by the way, I have a wooden leg.’”

Permit me a memory: Many years ago, I worked for a week down in Florida. One of the people I worked with was a man named — I can’t remember, but let’s call him Doug. At the end of the week, and the end of our labors, we decided to play a celebratory round of golf.

Walking to the first tee, I said, “Well, let me give you a litany of excuses. I haven’t played in ages. I’ve got rental clubs. I don’t have a glove, don’t have my shoes.”

Doug pointed downward and said, “Can you beat a wooden leg?”

I’d had no idea. Doug had been in Vietnam, as I recall. Shut me up but quick.

Helprin writes, “He was thinking mainly of Catherine. But, with no loss of force, both love and prayer tend to embrace all those who are deserving.”

This, I think is true, but I’d have to ponder it for a while . . .

There was a time, back when the Buckleys were around, that I had many a meal with society ladies. And I smiled with recognition when I read this line in Helprin: “Evelyn stared at a golden roll sitting forever safely on her bread plate.”

This is one of the hardest statements in the whole book — one of the lines hardest to swallow: “Don’t you know [asks Billy Hale] that this is how life is? The world is made up of insoluble problems, of things that are beyond the influence of heroic action — of bitter loss, and no recoupment.”

Certainly without religion, true.

Different types react differently to horrific news.

The poorer and less powerful a person, [Harry] had observed, the more expressive. Had the wife of an English duke been apprised of her husband’s death, she might have clouded over, perhaps stiffened a little, or trembled momentarily, and in the stillness the bearer of the bad news might hear a leaf drop somewhere on the soft and capacious lawns. But not here.

If a South American worker named Guada — one of Helprin’s characters — died, “the screams and flailings” of his dear wife “would be like those of torture, and then, not long after, would come the exhausted silence of utter defeat, a silence where, courtesy of death, all classes meet.”

This novel has a number of set pieces, and I certainly don’t mean that term pejoratively. In fact, it’s probably not the right term. There are certain, distinct episodes and meditations that are feats of writing.

In one episode, a character struggles for his life when his boat breaks apart in a storm. This episode is detailed, lengthy, and riveting. I have to wonder: How could Helprin know about these things if he had not experienced them for himself? How?

Maybe he has, maybe he hasn’t. The best writers simply know — know how things are. How they know it is a little mysterious.

I heard something once about Maya Angelou, and I’m afraid to check it out, because I want it to be true. It makes me think better of her (than I would). As a girl, she loved Shakespeare. And she assumed Shakespeare to have been a black girl, because “how else could he know exactly how I feel?”

Reading In Sunlight and in Shadow, I often thought, “How could Mark know exactly how I feel, what I think?”

I’m feeling like this is enough for one installment. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.

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