Well, this is officially the first book in this series that I haven’t read–so I best be getting on that (seriously, now I really really want to). Ben is an IRL friend of mine from lovely Portland. I love the way his literary mind is in constant conflict with the beautiful and terrible world that he finds himself in. Do yourself a favor, read this essay, and then get on over to his website where you can find more of his writing.
by Ben Bishop
“A lot of people hate heroes. I was criticized for portraying people who are brave, honest, loving, intelligent. That was called weak and sentimental. People who dismiss all real emotion as sentimentality are cowards. They’re afraid to commit themselves, and so they remain ‘cool’ for the rest of their lives, until they’re dead—then they’re really cool.”
– Mark Helprin
^ ^ ^
I’m infatuated with New York City. My fascination is of a particular variety, the kind that comes from visiting a place, immediately becoming enamored, and then returning numerous times without ever actually moving there and having to suffer its more dismal aspects. It’s an infatuation rooted in the aromas of history and raw ambition I get a whiff of every time I walk through Manhattan’s cobblestoned alleys, or drift over the timeless span of the Brooklyn Bridge. New York is a romantic city in the fullest sense of the term, at once exhilarating and unpredictable, a grand old place, occasionally desolate, seeming to have a thousand faces.
Set near the turn of the 20th century, Mark Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale” takes place in an alternate version of New York. Recognizable as the real thing, the city’s subtle deviations from reality are revealed only gradually, as the novel unfolds. “Winter’s Tale” traces the life of Peter Lake, master burglar, including his exploits as a thief, his encounters with an enchanted white horse, his pursuit of a beautiful woman dying of consumption, and his running conflict with a brutal gangster. It is fundamentally a fantasy and a work of magical realism, although it operates within (and, just as importantly, was acknowledged and received by the powers that rule) the world of literary fiction. Verbose to the point of intoxication, the book includes some of the best names I’ve ever encountered (a street gang named the Dead Rabbits? come on), and is both a paean to New York City and a document chronicling the author’s love affair with the English language.
When I first encountered “Winter’s Tale” two years ago, I was deep in the throes of trying to sell my first novel, a process that involved trying to understand my place within the world of fiction. Who was I writing for? What was I trying say? Who was going to read my book? I furrowed my brow and reflected with great sobriety on the Good Books I’d read or had recommended to me over the past decade. Meanwhile, there was a moment during my devouring of “Winter’s Tale” when I began to realize what the distinct-yet-not-unpleasant twinge I’d been feeling since the first page was. It dawned on me that the sliver of undefined matter lodged way back in the molars of my brain had as much to do with what I was not encountering in the book as what I was. Several hundred pages into the story I was surprised to find that I was not ankle deep in existential despair. Try as I might, I simply could not find any artful ennui, nor any of the other neuroses I’d come to associate with much of the literary fiction I’d read. The lead characters were not grappling with suburban desolation, the disintegration of the nuclear family, or that postmodern ambivalence which, while sometimes useful, is all too often symptomatic of a corrosive, humanistic resignation.
Yes, you say, but did the book change your life? It did. From nearly the first page, I was captivated by its earnestness. Here were characters who believed in the eternal power of love and the ultimate weight of justice. Here were clear depictions of good and evil and the struggle to choose one and not the other. Here was the promise of immortality, and a clear-eyed embrace of the spiritual reality that underpins the material world. And yet it was not a naive work. Neither, miraculously, was it sentimental. You can’t elide the realities of depravity and despair and also tell a human story of any consequence. Not if you want people to believe you. Yet the overall tone of the book—the exuberance of the language, the almost obsessive preoccupation with light and color, and the simple yet powerful claim that things like faithfulness and selflessness are not only possible but vital—was so fundamentally and unapologetically optimistic, that upon my exposure to it I felt something inside of me resonate like a sounding bell.
Of course, not all of what we would call literary fiction is depraved or morally relativistic. Not by a long shot. Still, I cannot deny how clearly I was struck by the difference between the story of Peter Lake and many of the novels featured on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. Indeed, I wonder if there has ever been as tantalizing a description of a book as the one that ran in the September 4, 1983 Times review of “Winter’s Tale”:
“There’s far more that I would wish to say about the book – so much more that I find myself nervous, to a degree I don’t recall in my past as a reviewer, about failing the work, inadequately displaying its brilliance.”
As someone who has grown up reading and studying modern American novels, I’ve absorbed numerous unspoken rules, including the one that states that it’s simply not cool to hold up people who are gentle, hopeful, generous, or altruistic as heroes. Novels that celebrate virtue wholeheartedly, without irony or shame, are exceedingly rare. Those that are canonized are even rarer. That a reviewer for The New York Times would say of any book, let alone this book, that he is nervous about failing to adequately display its brilliance surprised me, to say the least.
You will note that I have not told you much about the plot or characters, save a cursory overview. I haven’t talked about the moment when I roared with laughter while alone in my bedroom while reading. I haven’t told you about coming to the final scenes of the book, and how I mourned finishing it. I haven’t done any of these things because I want you to have an unadulterated experience of the novel for yourself, to discover its joys on your own and thereby forge your own memories. Before I ever thought about “Winter’s Tale” on an intellectual or critical level, I simply drank it in as a story, and in drinking it in I was powerfully moved. By the end, I found myself agreeing with another reviewer who once wrote that Helprin’s work “exists to remind us that… it is sometimes wiser and more fulfilling to cherish our deepest ideals than to mock them.”
Last Christmas, I unwrapped a gift from my sister; a copy of “Winter’s Tale.” She didn’t realize I’d already read it. When she did, she was crestfallen. She offered to take it back, get me something else.
“No,” I said, waving my hand. “No, no. Absolutely not. I’m going to read it again.”
Ben Bishop lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.
Other posts in the Book That Changed My Life series: