Mark Helprin Helprin, Mark (Vol. 32)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mark Helprin 1947–

American novelist and short story writer.

Helprin blends elements of fantasy with realistic social settings to create imaginative, fable-like works with moral implications. His protagonists typically undertake sundry comic adventures through which they gain a humane perspective of life. With A Dove of the East (1975), a collection of his early short stories, Helprin established a reputation for inventing extravagant plots and characters. His first novel, Refiner's Fire: The Life and Adventures of Marshall Pearl, A Foundling (1977), relates a young man's escapades around the world through a series of heroic exploits that some critics likened to works of the picaresque-romance tradition.

For many critics, Ellis Island and Other Stories (1981) marked Helprin's arrival as an accomplished author. In these stories, Helprin emphasizes common moral concerns more strongly than in his earlier work. His recent best-selling novel, Winter's Tale (1983), mixes fable and myth with romance, history, and a network of literary allusions. The story centers on the struggle of a mythologized Manhattan to become free from poverty and crime. Peter Lake, the novel's hero, moves in picaresque fashion from one adventure to another while pursued by evil forces. As in his earlier works, Helprin eschews realism in favor of a fantastic pursuit of his utopian vision.

(See also CLC, Vols. 7, 10, 22 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)

Robert Towers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One can understand the impatience of writers with the demands and constrictions of realistic fiction. Many of them perceive it as an exhausted mode, though realism (like a sick king who has had to surrender whole provinces) still holds a position of shaky dominance…. Is the situation ripe for a romantic revival such as seems to be occurring in music and painting? Instead of attempting painstakingly to create an acceptable simulacrum of the world as we (at least some of us) experience it, or to forge verbal artifacts that are sufficient unto themselves, wouldn't it be more exhilarating to restore our atrophied sense of wonder, to write about a magnificent white horse that can soar like Pegasus, to conjure up a band of troll-like criminals in perpetual pursuit of a saintly orphan who is both a burglar and a master mechanic, to describe a fantasized New York City with all the resources of an unashamedly poetic prose?

Mark Helprin obviously thinks so. He has made romantic forays before, in several pieces from Ellis Island and Other Stories (a collection much admired by a number of reviewers and prizegivers) and in his first novel, Refiner's Fire, in which the narrator's adventures seem as whimsically arbitrary as those of any knight-errant. Now, astride a huge, fire-breathing dragon of a novel, Helprin has mounted an all-out assault on the ramparts of realism, brandishing the sword of fantasy and shouting his battle cries: "Vision! Apocalypse! Ecstasy!" The boldness, not to say chutzpah, of Winter's Tale may well leave the reader stunned….

Escaping from his master's stable in Brooklyn, the stallion [Athansor] crosses the Williamsburg Bridge and makes his way to the Battery, at which point the imagery becomes positively incandescent…. At the Battery, the horse rescues a man fleeing from a sinister gang dressed in bowler hats and heavy coats—and so we are launched on a phantasmagoric flight…. (p. 122)

The fleeing man is Peter Lake, the burglar-mechanic "hero" of the novel, a man who appears, disappears (presumably dead), and many decades later reappears (transformed) in the course of a time scheme that extends from the early years of this century to the advent—at once catastrophic and life-renewing—of the third millennium. His pursuers are the Short Tails—men "with strange bent faces, clifflike brows, tiny chins, noses and ears that looked sewn-back-on, and hairlines that descended preposterously far"—and their cruel leader, Pearly Soames. The horse, Athansor, has a habit of appearing at crucial moments to aid the forces...

(The entire section is 4,874 words.)