Readers of Helprin’s work are immediately struck by sentences such as the following from the short story “A Room of Frail Dancers” (1981): “Once, far away, he had seen an endless column of tanks moving in rays of sun, and their dust cloud had risen like the voices of a choir.” This sentence demonstrates several features of Helprin’s acclaimed style and offers a glimpse of one of his main themes as well.
The most striking device in this example is the simile using synesthesia, or combining of the senses, to compare the tanks’ dust cloud to singing voices. Surprising and thought-provoking metaphors such as this abound in Helprin’s work. Sometimes his fertile imagination piles two or more onto one referent. There is also an example here of the author’s use of hyperbole, or poetic exaggeration, in the “endless column of tanks”—the column is not truly endless but seems so to the observer. Helprin often uses this device to describe the wonders of childhood, as in “A Vermont Tale” (1981), or to instill a childlike perspective in adults. The novel in which this device expands to become the driving force of the story, Winter’s Tale, has been described by one reviewer as a “children’s book for grown-ups.”
This example also hints at Helprin’s uncommon use of the imagery of light. Most of his descriptions of setting include at least a few words about how the light looks; Winter’s Tale begins in the “light blue flood” of dawn and dissolves, at the end, into another dawn with an ocean of “pale shimmering gold.”
Finally, the quoted sentence also demonstrates Helprin’s ability to turn commonplace or even tragic aspects of human existence into things of beauty. In this case, the movement of tanks, ugly machines going about the terrible business of war, becomes a thing of beauty through an image suggesting, ironically, an act of religious worship. The capacity to see the beauty in all things is one facet of a passionate love of life, and one that Helprin advocates throughout his work. The main character in the short story “Ellis Island,” an unnamed immigrant to New York in the early 1900’s, explains it best:So, I worked in the kitchen, I didn’t care. In fact, I came to enjoy it. I saw every scene as if it were a fine painting. That, I suppose, is one of the benefits of a life of the mind—when you can turn the kitchen from homeliness into a thing of beauty. With patience, all motion becomes dance; all sound, music; all color, painting.
Life can also be illuminated by the nearness of death. As an avid mountain climber, Helprin appreciates, and shows in his characters, that life becomes most precious when it is in danger of being lost. In Winter’s Tale, Peter Lake’s lover is terminally ill when he meets her. She is burning up with fever; here Helprin paints an image of the body as machine, overstoked and destroying itself from too much heat, too much life. She gains from this existence a calm contemplativeness and a heightened pleasure in living.
In one of the most striking sections of A Soldier of the Great War, the title character, Allesandro, is awaiting execution, having been condemned to death for deserting his post in the Italian army. The narration slows, and the writing becomes lyrical, describing the almost suspended animation of the prisoners waiting for death, day after day, on an island in the beautiful Mediterranean Sea. As other condemned prisoners react with madness or despair, Allesandro achieves a transcendental peace. He even develops the courage, when he is miraculously reprieved at the last minute, to offer his life in exchange for that of a friend who has a wife and children.
In addition to this acceptance of death, Helprin also considers death to be a great injustice, the ultimate enemy in the great war of life. This is especially true when death claims the young and innocent. One way to deal with this injustice, he feels, is through exploring the possibility of rebirth or resurrection. This is one of the major themes of Winter’s Tale. Peter Lake returns, after apparently having been dead for eighty years, to be a catalyst as New York City is burned and then reborn into the twenty-first century. Then he gives his life to resurrect a five-year-old girl who had died of a fever, a child symbolic of all those unjustly taken.
Among the old-fashioned values that Helprin’s work promotes are responsibility and commitment. Most of the romantic relationships in these novels and stories are true loves, often begun as love at first sight. In one of the few stories where marital infidelity is portrayed, “A Vermont Tale,” the narrator’s veiled confession, told in a parable of two loons, becomes a cautionary tale about the perils of unfaithfulness. More often, Helprin’s protagonists are faithful and true, sometimes for years after the lover has been lost, apparently dead. In A Soldier of the Great War, Allesandro’s commitment and enduring hope is rewarded when his lover, who had seemingly died in an air raid years before, turns up, along with the son she had been carrying at the time. In this case, hope and faith are rewarded with an apparent resurrection.
To be fair, many critics view Helprin’s style and message with a cynical eye. His prose has been called sugary and overblown, and he has been accused of showing off, of dazzling the reader with literary tricks and wordplay at the expense of the story. The stories themselves, and especially the novels, have been criticized for being too heavy-handed, with the author intruding on the story to point out the morals and messages. Some reviewers find his positive attitude a bit naïve and say that his victories, resurrections, and golden dawns are too easily won, though his later works, particularly the stories in The Pacific, are a bit more pessimistic. In many of these stories, the characters try to live perfect lives hoping that their efforts will be rewarded with happiness, but if not, hoping that the effort itself will be reward enough. Many readers, and reviewers, are refreshed or even moved by these tales of strength, integrity, love, and hope in an age of increasing trouble and despair.
“A Dove of the East”
First published: 1975 (collected in A Dove of the East, and Other Stories, 1975)
Type of work: Short story
A man risks ridicule and death to tend a wounded bird and recalls the disappearance of his young bride during World War II.
The title story of Helprin’s first published collection, “A Dove of the East,” is a beautiful story of love and courage set in Israel some years after the 1967 Six-Day War. Leon Orlovsky is a French Jew who has settled in the occupied territory of the Golan Heights and become a scout for a crew of cowboys. His job is to ride ahead of the herd, finding a route to water and fresh forage. He enjoys his work, taking pleasure in the solitude and the harsh beauty of his surroundings despite the persistent threat of Syrian snipers and saboteurs.
One evening, Leon finishes his day with an outburst of wild riding and an unexplained outpouring of emotion ranging from exhilaration to violence to tears. In the morning, he finds a beautiful dove, critically wounded, apparently after having been trampled during Leon’s wild ride of the night before. He decides that he must stay with the bird, to keep it company as it heals or, more likely, dies. Leon wonders why, and how, he can do this for a simple bird, shirking his responsibility to his comrades and exposing himself to ridicule and danger.
A long flashback then tells the story of Leon’s relationship with Ann, with whom he fell in love at first sight (a common occurrence in Helprin’s stories) when both were quite young. They courted, married, and had started on what would seem to be a wonderful life together until the interruption of World War II. Here, as with the Syrian guerrillas in the earlier part of the story, the enemy is simply the war, an impersonal force like a hurricane that sweeps over individual humans.
As Leon and Ann were fleeing Paris to the south of France, the train on which they were riding suffered a brutal air attack. Leon was wounded; upon regaining consciousness, he found the train, and Ann, gone. In the chaos of war-torn Europe, he was never able to find Ann again or discover her fate. Crushed by the loss of her, he is able to survive only by harboring a hope that she will someday reappear.
At the end of the story, Leon hears riders approaching. The reader never learns whether they are his enemies or his comrades, nor is the ultimate fate of the dove revealed.
Though the story is rich in symbols, correspondences, and meanings, one possible interpretation is that the dove represents to Leon innocence and beauty destroyed by random, unfeeling fate, just as his perfect relationship with Ann was inexplicably ended. Courage and hope in the face of tragedy are among the glories that Helprin...
(The entire section is 3717 words.)