'In Sunlight and in Shadow': Mark Helprin the traditionalist shimmers and misses

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New York City ferries have been vessels of imagination for a lot of writers -- Walt Whitman, Edith Wharton, Herman Mankiewicz.


A now obscure screenwriter, the late Mankiewicz is mostly remembered as the co-author with Orson Welles of the screenplay of "Citizen Kane." One of the few quiet and lovely moments in the film is this poignant memory by an associate of Kane:

"In Sunlight and in Shadow"
By Mark Helprin
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($28).

"One day back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on a ferry and as we pulled out there was another ferry pulling in -- and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. ... I only saw her for one second and she didn't see me at all -- but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by when I haven't thought of that girl."

It's easy to believe that Mark Helprin appropriated that evocative image for his massive new novel as his hero spies a heavenly vision in white on the Staten Island ferry and is smitten, "although what right had he to love the brief sight of a woman in white who had crossed a crowded [ferry] deck?" As we will find, he believed he had every right.

Thus begins "In Sunlight and in Shadow," the title a hat tip to Poe's "Eldorado" (Gayly bedight / A gallant knight, / In sunshine and in shadow, / Had journeyed long ...). The knight is Harry Copeland, World War II warrior back in his native Manhattan in 1946, puzzling about the direction of his life until Catherine -- the "woman in white" -- banishes his uncertainty.

Knights are for fairy tales and this novel is exactly one -- a fantasy with a moral. Mr. Helprin is a traditionalist in theme and style, his books evoking an earlier time when battles were clearly defined in black and white. But, preachy gets ponderous and this novel lumbers along in elephantine fashion, each of its 705 pages heavy with Mr. Helprin's deliberate explanation emphasizing the most obvious information. Here, he explains how Catherine and Harry rode a bus:

"Appropriately for a couple that had come on together and would leave together, they sat next to one another."

How traditional!

Catherine is the classic damsel in distress, the most ideal young woman in New York facing marriage to an older man who had abused her since she was 13. To save her, Harry swims naked from Manhattan to Long Island holding a tuxedo over his head, crashes the wedding and, in true fairy tale style, sweeps her away. If you're worried, yes, he does put on the tux.

What drives Harry to the absurd heights devised by his creator is the belief that the "only worthwhile thing other than a noble showing in the face of its dangers was the ravishing connection of one heart to another. ... But he recognized that not everyone in the world thought as he did." So Harry is not an absolutist, simply an extremist whose trust in the world's beauty, the love of a perfect woman and the importance of principle over reality is the foundation of Mr. Helprin's fantasy

His characters are not ordinary humans with the usual flaws, confusions and doubts that afflict us all and help us connect with our fictional counterparts. Instead, Catherine and Harry symbolize the author's ideals, his vision of how people ought to be in his traditionalist world. Of course, Harry will threaten to lose his perfect helpmate to adhere to the principle that wrong must be made right, even if it involves murder. In Helprinland, principles justify killing people, just not perfect ones like Catherine and Harry.

In his glorification of the noble and the beautiful, Mr. Helprin reveals an unattractive snobbery of his own as he dismisses, if not insults, at least 47 percent of Americans, if not more. All Manhattanites worship status above all else (including food), no ingenue in any Broadway show -- except Catherine -- has never visited the public library, soldiers, even well-educated ones like Harry, appear common and stupid to the general public, and all newspapers refuse to accept blame for their mistakes, even when those errors have killed people, as if that ever happened.

The list could be longer, but you get the idea of why "In Sunlight and in Shadow" is ponderous. Its author's prejudices drag down the simple story of romance and a call to duty into a slough of pettiness and displays of arrogance. There are several passages of singular quality here, though, especially the war-action scenes, an area of particular interest of Mr. Helprin as revealed in earlier books.

Yet, the novel feels lifeless, much like the dated 1940s Hollywood romance films it resembles. Harry and Catherine fervently express their boundless love for each other like Cornel Wilde and Linda Darnell reading the cornball dialogue written by a studio contract writer. There's no palpable passion, no steamy love scenes, no physical connection.

Making the enterprise less successful is Mr. Helprin's poor pacing of what little action occurs among the seemingly interminable conversations as Harry, much like many Hollywood heroes, gathers his own "band of brothers" together to take on the organized crime boss who is tormenting him.

Set in early postwar America, "In Sunlight and in Shadow" plays homage to the souls of the conflict's victims in Mr. Helprin's curious images of how the living hold those souls in their memory as, for instance, by staring "transfixed at a brass banister under strong incandescent light, praying, literally praying, that the gleam of its refraction would skip to another realm to shine in eyes that could no longer see."

It's a carefully wrought image, to be sure, if not overwrought, another example of so much misplaced intensity that blurs the focus on the novel's theme and loses the reader in a welter of pretty pieces that just don't fit together.


Bob Hoover: pittbookeditor@hotmail.com.


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