If on a winter’s night a book group
On a night significantly less than wintry, the Beamers gathered to discuss Mark Helprin’s tale of the apocalyptic winters that transform New York City and its inhabitants via the kind of resurrection magic invoked by William Shakespeare, Winter’s Tale. It is a book in love with language (and lots of love and language, at that), a love not always returned by the Beamers, alas.
The Name of the Game-ly
Helprin’s tale sprawls over 750 pages or so, with dozens of characters who bear names akin to the folks in the novels of Charles Dickens. Peter Lake. Cecil Wooley. The Reverend Mootfowl. Virginia Gamely. Craig Binky. And the personalities are equally as outsized as the names and the wordage, giving us antagonists like Pearly Soames, leader of the Short Tails gang, planning to rob a federal gold shipment to satisfy his own craving for pure, rich colors. Jon noted the humor in even the ruthless activities that Pearly and his gang perpetrate, such as Pearly freezing to watch painters at work applying brilliant color to a building, leaving his frustrated men to enact revenge on the hapless painters, Pearly being off-limits. Or his refusal of prized stolen artworks, too “muddy” for his taste, leading him to have the pieces burned and to send a sharp rebuke to the gallery owner with a refusal to rob the place henceforth.
Book of 10,000 Lakes
Divided into four sections, Winter’s Tale brings us first Peter Lake, the abandoned child of refused immigrants, raised by the Bayonne Baymen in primitive conditions, who is exiled again, this time to Manhattan. Becoming a mechanic through the exploitative tutelage of the Reverend Mootfowl, he also becomes a burglar through the training by Pearly Soames. When Pearly’s gold heist threatens the Baymen, though, Peter reverts to his original loyalties and the eternal chase between the betrayed Pearly and the unrepentant Peter begins.
For some Beamers, the slower pace of the book proved to be an insurmountable obstacle. Jon complained that, over 100 pages in, we only just meet Peter’s true love, Beverly Penn, a tuberculous sufferer who sleeps outdoors to help combat her feverish condition. He requested that the book’s editor be chastised for failing to trim the unnecessary verbiage, “at least remove every third adjective and/or adverb”. I thought that trimming would be hard to do, as the individual sentences hold up nicely, and the paragraphs build up to good images, sharp and humorous.
A (not terribly) random reading of the opening of Chapter 12, “Lake of the Coheeries” (not to be confused with Chapter 8, “Lake of the Coheeries”, mind you), left us both pointing and saying, “See, see, I am right! It needs (lots of)/(no) cutting!” Some Beamers went even further, like Kathy (commenting via e-mail) who would place the book in our lowest “I want my time back!” category, or George, our frequent guest Beamer, who wondered if publishers used any kind of focus group testing to catch overly verbose works from making it to market. Other Beamers were not so demanding, but the consensus did rest with Jon’s position.
A Book of Not-Short Stories?
Alternately, some found the book too abrupt at points. Donna felt thrown out of the story at the points where it changes from section to section, particularly when the book tosses Peter Lake and his white horse into the oblivion of the cloud wall and shifts to San Francisco and the uncertain inheritance of Hardesty Marratta. His subsequent cross-country journey does bring him to New York and to the mysterious upstate community at the Lake of the Coheeries, but it takes 50 pages to get him there. I would not part with those 50 pages (laughing most of the way through as Hardesty suffers the aid of self-proclaimed mountain guide Jesse Honey), but it does require some fortitude to figure out how Hardesty fits into a New York story without much introduction.
Interestingly, the structure of the novel reminded Donna of reading a short story anthology more than the usually tighter narrative of a novel. And that experience may underlie some of the Beamer disappointment, as we tend to shy away from the short, sharp shocks of collections in preference to the longer, steadier feel of novels. These days, 750 pages is not an overly large book (looking at you, GRRM and Robert Jordan!), and the Beamers have tackled big works before, even ones with footnotes (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, we salute you!). But Winter’s Tale gave us a different style of reading and that may have defeated some of us before finishing the work.
Fierce Battles and Witty Banter in Winter
Still, Helprin had many, many (too many?) good pieces in his writing, using a gentle but incisive wit to deflate a lot of the pretensions of our major metropolitan center, even as he showered it with a lot of affection (akin, again, to Dickens and his treatment of London, I felt). Liz found the action sequences, when they popped up, were wonderfully direct, unencumbered by any side glances or unnecessary descriptive passages. Instead, she found them focused on the action and detailed enough to be clear and understandable. I liked the longer dialogue sections, too, particularly with their attention to being era-appropriate, so that the opening 19th century scenes have a well-distanced sound, while the mid-20th century and contemporary, millennial scenes sound updated to the right time periods in terms of speech patterns and slang.
Re-reading the book after 30 years, I was again consumed by some of the settings and the images that had remained clear in mind despite the years. Alan, on the other hand, having read the book previously, did not find that much or any of it stood out in his recollection. I recommended re-reading it, as even scenes that I did not remember came back bright to life, like Virginia Gamely extemporizing on the etymology of “Coheeries” to dazzle her new newspaper friends with her linguistic prowess, to her just a natural outgrowth of her conversations at home peppered with the obscurities of her mother’s vocabulary. Nick felt that it would be handy to have a short guide to the book, with the significant passages highlit, sparing readers the necessity to have to winnow out the chaff on their own before finding the wheat.
The Magic of Realism?
The non-reality of the book posed us some problems, too, particularly the mysterious “cloud wall” that hovers around, selectively snatching up characters and imperiling the NY harbor but not generating much actual concern (no “Cloud Watch” bureau appears to track its treacherous movements, for example). Or the fantastical cosmology that Beverly, our chief stargazer, develops, populating the heavens with the creatures of the night sky constellations, in actual fact and not just as mythic visions projected onto the stars. Which offer us more, Beverly’s cosmic menagerie, or Peter Lake restoring the lights in the “sky” of Grand Central Terminal? (And points to the author for getting the name right!) In most ways, just as with the Epilogue, Helprin leaves a lot up to the reader to decide, which could be considered something of a failure given the sheer volume of material he does offer up. As a fan of ambiguity in literature (as opposed to confusion), I appreciate the opportunity to choose my own adventure, as it were. But, other Beamers prefer a more cleanly laid out path to explore.
The ending did concern me, as I recall being unsure of its ability to provide closure the first time I read the book. This time, though, I found it did bring the threads together and provide a good trade-off of tragedy and triumph. Though, surprisingly, given the length of the book, it all occurs over 80 pages or so, seemingly in a blink of an eye. (OK, maybe two blinks. Three, tops.) No other Beamers raised any objections to shortness, even as they did agree on the comparatively swift feeling of the conclusion.
Now a Major Motion Picture
And, along the way, we also discussed the recent (2014) movie adaptation. Our media maven, Chris, gave us some plot and character summaries, and for the most part, it sounds as though the film was somewhat faithful to the book. Disappointingly, I found that, in Chris’s opinion, Russell Crowe did not make a good Pearly Soames, being far too “mustache-twirling” to be either believable or threatening as a turn-of-the-century NY gang leader. The movie did poorly at the box office, but it may work better for readers than for first-time viewers, given the complicated plots and the plethora of characters. As the warning goes, “Viewer discretion is advised.”