“In the tunnels of contemporary American fiction,” Mark Helprin noted in 1988, “the moles are singing. They are singing in unison, they are singing to each other, and they are singing of darkness.” Against these literary moles, with their darkened vision, defeated characters, and bleakly ironic minimalist style, Helprin stands apart and largely alone: a writer wildly extravagant and overwhelmingly affirmative, a true believer in an art that is “consequential” and, as John Gardner has claimed, essentially “moral.”
Helprin, the son of immigrant parents, is remarkably reticent about his personal life, and his politics and his whimsical treatment of interviewers have led to some doubt about the veracity of his autobiographical statements. Yet he incorporates many details from his life—such as his childhood in New York’s Hudson River Valley, his brief residence in the British West Indies, his service in the British Merchant Navy, his Harvard education (he received a B.A. in 1969 and an M.A. in Middle Eastern studies in 1972), and a two-year stint in the Israeli military from 1972 to 1973—in his fantastic and oddly autobiographical fiction. Although Helprin is Jewish by birth and belief, if not in actual practice, his fictions rarely feature Jewish characters and do not take their central themes from Jewish life and philosophy.
Helprin sold his first short story to The New Yorker when he was twenty-one years old. Reviewers greeted his subsequent work with considerable praise, but academic critics largely ignored it. Variously set in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and in places as different as the American West, Sicily, Russia, and Israel, and dealing with a diverse cast of characters (pacifists, soldiers, fishermen, clerks), the twenty stories collected in A Dove of the East, and Other Stories display the singleness of purpose and intensity of vision built upon an intuitive sense of right and wrong and, above all, on love and loss. Even the shortest of these stories possess an expansiveness out of all proportion to their length but commensurate with the vastness of Helprin’s vision of a world whose harshness is matched by a compensatory majesty. As in all his work, Helprin’s language in these stories equals his vision: opulent, “ravishing,” excessive, concerned not with the probable but instead with the possible or even the impossible, not with what does happen but with what one believes should happen in stories “full of lies that [are] true.”
A Dove of the East, and Other Stories deals largely with death; Refiner’s Fire deals with resurrection. In the stories, the soul is tempered and refined by the crucible of loss; in the novel, war serves the same purpose. Subtitled The Life and Adventures of Marshall Pearl, a Foundling, Refiner’s Fire...
(The entire section is 1171 words.)