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The Terrifying Beauty of the Fabulist

Mark Helprin's The Pacific and Other Stories


As a fiction writer, Mark Helprin never seems hampered by that snarky, internal schoolmarm who whispers doubtfully into the ear as writers write, "That could never happen!" or "People don't talk like that!" On the contrary (thankfully), Helprin has soundly killed that voice, and thus unencumbered by a need to mimic the dreary realism of everyday life, Helprin unrolls his fables.

Perfecting his craft over the course of nearly 30 years, Helprin is a formidable figure, and his new work of fiction, The Pacific and Other Stories, carries with it high expectations. Helprin's first story was published in the New Yorker, and he was something of a literary darling until he let his politically conservative roots grow out. (He's been spending his time as a conservative pundit for the Wall Street Journal and the Claremont Institute, writing biting and vitriolic articles about current events, mostly those unfolding in the Middle East.) So what do we have with The Pacific, Helprin's first foray back into fiction in some 10 years? Grave, thoughtful magic.

Those familiar with his writing already know that Helprin sets the bar high with the quality, texture and shape of his writing, which is by turns witty, outrageous, profound and vulgar, mixing drama and melodrama--often within the same paragraph. The sense of possibility hasn't dimmed with Helprin's new work, though it's true that his acrobatic prose has calmed in the intervening years. The Pacific's language still casts a spell, but the spell is less exuberant than in older works like Memoir From Ant-Proof Case or even Winter's Tale, and the darkness that has always stood alongside the whimsy is brought to the forefront. Age seems to have turned Helprin's fictional eye inward, contemplative. The beauty, however, is undimmed.

Though the settings are varied, Helprin seems most at home when he's writing tales of New York City, as in the September 11th fable, "Monday," the story of an honest contractor and his gift to a grieving widow. Dancing dangerously near the abyss of sentimentalism, Helprin manages to pull back and avoid cheap, mawkish emotion while still bringing the sting of tears to the reader's eyes--a trick at which he's a master. In writing of these laborers as they finish their work, Helprin captures the creative process itself: "They knew they had made something beautiful, and, because of this, they were content." In "Perfection," Helprin changes baseball and its meaning through the unlikely perspective of a devout Hasidic boy--a boy who believes that the Yankees play in "The House of Ruth" and could serve as divine mitigation for the terrible suffering of the Holocaust. Obviously this is heady, dangerous territory for writer and readers alike, transformed (if only for the story's duration) by the exegesis of the 14-year-old theologian.

Loss and memory, small and monumental heroism, war and the inextricable nature of life with death, are the concerns of The Pacific. Though the stories at times threaten to buckle under their contemplative, almost melancholy nature, the gravity is always counter-balanced by Helprin's sense of the world's beauty and human attempts to know it. Helprin is at his best here in The Pacific, as elsewhere, when he is able to transcend awareness of life's severity and gleefully stretch his tales almost to the point unbelievable. As exemplified in stories like "Perfection," Helprin pulls off a writing miracle: he presents the impossible as possible.

A reviewer once said of Mark Helprin, "If I had to be reincarnated as a right-wing Jewish magic-realist with a chip on my shoulder, Mark Helprin would be my first choice." This captures the draw of The Pacific and Helprin's fiction: In an uneasy truce with the reader, he shows us we may not want to see, makes pronouncements we may not want to hear, constructs religio-philosophical elements that trouble us--but, wrapping it all in masterful prose, vivid characters and plots, keeps us coming back.