September 20, 2012

Helprin’s return to postwar New York

By Mark Helprin
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Nearly 30 years ago, Mark Helprin set his novel Winter’s Tale, an enchanting epic that featured a flying horse and a dazzling array of human characters, in a fantastic and vividly imagined New York City. In his new novel he’s returned to that setting, and while In Sunlight and in Shadow, a romantic melodrama, has its appealing moments, it sadly lacks the magic of its predecessor.

On the Staten Island Ferry one day in May 1946, returning veteran Harry Copeland meets Catherine Thomas Hale, the daughter of a prominent investment banking family and an aspiring Broadway actress. Their chemistry is so instantaneous Catherine quickly casts aside her fiancé for Harry, even after she learns he’s Jewish, an inconvenient fact that sets up a clash with the genteel anti-Semitism of her social class.

While he’s enraptured by his new love, Harry still must struggle to maintain his late father’s fine leather goods business, and when a mob boss quadruples the company’s weekly protection payment its very existence is imperiled. Helprin portrays this graft as only a part of the larger corruption that pervades the city, driving Harry to despair of any help from the authorities and instead hatch a daring scheme to rid himself of his tormentor.

Helprin does a respectable job recreating the world of postwar New York City in the time when men wore fedoras and women’s gloves were a fashion item. Anyone who loves that city’s moods and light will appreciate portraits of views “down long, sea-horizoned avenues glittering with sun on glass, or in the narrow blocks choked with green,” but it seems he has taken it as a matter of faith that if a little description is good, much more must be better. The novel is weighed down by that flaw, which will test the patience of all but the most indulgent readers. When combined with a discursive plot, including a lengthy flashback to Harry’s combat experiences in Europe that seems to serve little purpose other than to introduce several characters he enlists in his desperate plan, the journey through the novel’s more than 700 pages eventually becomes arduous.   

Helprin’s protagonists are sympathetic and the obstacles they face in their quest to establish a life together feel genuine. Still, from a writer who’s capable of telling a dynamic story in soaring prose it’s disappointing that In Sunlight and in Shadow remains so firmly tethered to the ground.

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