You know you're in a new land when the narrative begins from the point of view of a large white horse.
This was a good joke, this defiance which made his heart beat in terror, for he was sure his master would soon be after him. Though he realized that he might be subject to a painful beating, he sense that the master was amused, pleased, and touched by rebellion as often as not - if it were in the proper form and done well, courageously. A shapeless, coarse revolt (such as kicking down the stable door) would occasion the whip. But not even then would the master always use it, because he prized a spirited animal, and he knew of and was grateful for the mysterious intelligence of this white horse, an intelligence that even he could not ignore except at his peril and to his sadness. Besides, he loved the horse and did not really mind the chase thorough Manhattan (where the horse always went), since it afforded him the chance to enlist old friends in the search, and the opportunity of visiting a great number of saloons where he would inquire, over a beer or two, if anyone had seen his enormous and beautiful white stallion rambling about in the nude, without bit, bridle, or blanket.In his heroes, his lovers, and his villains Helprin fashions clearly drawn characters, whose bold outlines he often pens with a complicitous wink.
The could not do without Manhattan. It drew his like a magnet, vacuum, like oats, or a mare, or an open, never-ending, tree-lined road...
They were perfectly criminal in appearance, with strange bent faces, clifflike brows, tiny chins, noses and ears that looked sewn-back-on, and hairlines that descended preposterously far (no glacier had even ventured farther south). Their cruelty project from them like sparks jumping a gap...He introduces a good 25 major characters whose unique environments, hierarchies, and backstories he develops over richly detailed chapters. One must have some patience and a good memory, because it may be 50 pages before the reader returns to a previous storyline. Once he has his plates in the air, the fun is to see how Helprin keeps them all spinning at the same time.
Helprin is deft at creating characters and settings that have the indelibility of myth. A great white horse which, as Helprin tells us a few too many times, resembles a monument that has escaped its pedestal, a New York gang leader addicted to colored paint, a consumptive demanding young woman who falls in love with the thief who tries to rob her house and whose disease keeps her living in an aerie built atop her wealthy father's house, a woman living in a timeless lakeside town in upstate New York with a terrifyingly sophisticated and arcane vocabulary and pet rooster to whom she speaks, and a hilariously incompetent 4-foot-5-inch tall guide who accompanies one of our heroes through the Rocky Mountains. Though I had last read Winter's Tale more than a decade ago, I still remembered many of these characters.
Dickens seemed a touchstone for Helprin. The boldly drawn characters were only one of the ways Dickens was evoked. There was a scene with a young dying child in a tenement house on the lower east side which haunts the lead character Peter Lake all through his long life. The child becomes an archetype of injustice. Although the book has many fantastical elements, it has a moral core and this was its key symbol.
Another mythic character was New York City itself. The city was a mythic machine. I was particularly struck that as each of Helprin's characters enters the city for the first time, they are stripped clean of their possessions so that when they come to the city it is as if they were newborn.
Also apparent were his references to Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale - the theme of redemption, the otherworldly animals: Shakespeare's bear and Helprin's horse. The classically drawn heroes and villains. The characters coming to life after a long apparent death.
What I had forgotten were the details of the plot, which meant I could enjoy the suspense and resolution all over again. Perhaps Helprin explains himself too much in the book's resolution. I also hadn't remembered the near polemics on pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps economics that, frankly, come off as preachy. Thankfully, Helprin is a good enough writer that I could experience these as justifiably emanating from his character's biographies, and he is enough of a genuine romantic that they feel innocent. Mostly in this re-reading of Winter's Tale I noted an effective combination of high and low: magisterial epic and best-seller fantasy, literary fiction and romance, 19th century ode to modernity and modern science fiction. It is a rich and memorable work that I hope will provoke a good conversation this afternoon.
Here is a 1993 Paris Review interview with Helprin.