“Perfection” by Mark Helprin

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I drew my first wild card for Week #9 of my Deal Me In 2014 project and chose Mark Helprin’s “Perfection” from Jay’s list at Bibliophilopolis.  He also sponsors the Deal Me In challenge.  And I chose this story because I was the one who recommended it to Jay (even though I had yet to read it, but I think – or at least hope – I disclosed that fact at the time of my recommendation).  I do need to make a note to myself, though, to check out the length of a story before I recommend it to anyone.  At 70 pages, “Perfection” pushes the limit of being considered short.  But I would say that it has the feel of a short story as opposed to a novella – and I finally got a baseball story!

Philosophy, theology, metaphysics, baseball, and the meaning of life can always be rolled up into a really good story.  Think about Kevin Costner hearing “If you build it, they will come” in Field of Dreams – definitely a religious experience (and based on the novel, Shoeless Joe, by W. P. Kinsella).  Helprin’s story may not be quite what Kinsella’s story is, but it’s enjoyable all the same.

A minor infraction of the rabbinical code involving Swiss chocolate causes Roger, an adolescent Hasidic Jewish boy, to pull the New York Yankees out of a slump:

Early in June of 1956, the summer in New York burst forth temperate and bright, the colors deep, the wind promising.  This was the beginning of the summer that was to see the culmination of a chain of events that had begun, like everything else, at the beginning of the world, but had started in a practical sense in March of the previous year, when the Saromsker Rebbe opened the wrong drawer.

Helprin skillfully brings to life a few famous people such as Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra, the latter complete with his unusual way of summing up the world.  I’ve always thought it a difficult task for an author to incorporate historical figures as fictional characters.  He also has some fun with accents and the Yiddish language.  When asked how much he weighs, Roger replies “Thirteen and three-quarter shvoigles”.  Not knowing the equivalent in pounds, he further indicates that “there are eight beyngaluchs in a shvoigle”.   Helprin’s warmth and humor remains in tact for the majority of the story.

However, a downside to the story does exist.  I’m not fond of the technique in which one of the characters gives a lecture or has a conversation where they explain the meaning of the story – just in case the readers don’t get it.  Personally, I think a good story can stand on it’s own.  And “Perfection” could definitely fall into this category without having Roger lecture the Yankees in the locker room as to the meaning of his involvement with them and the meaning of life in general.  Even so, I still got a little chuckle out of the lecture.

This story is included in Helprin’s collection Pacific and Other Stories. 

Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

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Then the bow orchestra began to play an apocalyptically beautiful canon, one of those pieces in which, surely, the composer simply transcribed what was given, and trembled in awe of the hand that was guiding him.

I am usually not impressed with love-at-first-sight stories, but Mark Helprin’s novel, Winter’s Tale, contains two instances and he manages to make it work.  Much of this novel tends to break the rules – or at least my rules – but somehow it doesn’t matter, I kept reading and kept enjoying it.  Helprin’s lyrical writing style serves as a major reason for the beauty of this novel.  Continuously trying to figure out a category in which to place the novel also kept me thinking and wondering – activities that greatly enhance any reading experience.  Is it a fantasy novel?  Probably.  Is it historical?  Definitely.  Is it more? Yes.  Several aspects of the novel jumped out at me even more so than the intricate plot.

I have always been in awe of authors who can take a geographical location and practically turn it into a character, itself.  In Winter’s Tale, Helprin takes New York City and does just that.  New York’s power, harshness, cultures and wonder are portrayed in what is more than simply a setting.  I’ve always been fascinated with New York, but my only visit to the Big Apple occurred just this year in June.  I have to say based on my short visit, Helprin’s take on the city is spot on.  In a smaller, but not less important, manner, the fictional location of Lake of the Coheeries also takes on a life of its own.  Lake of the Coheeries, located near New York or perhaps not, stands almost frozen in time and I mean that literally – I think its always winter there but that’s not a huge surprise considering the book’s title.  I would describe the town as a quirky version of a Currier and Ives painting.

I don’t think I ever read a novel in which the season of the year takes center stage.  Just like Helprin’s New York, Winter is both harsh and wonderful.  The clear white freshness of the season mixes easily with the various characters and situations.  From sledding on a frozen river, spending Christmas in a cabin by the Lake or getting caught on a train during a blizzard, Winter, in all it’s glory, is the story’s continual backdrop.  I would rarely say that anyone would have to read a book at a particular time.  In my mind, books usually pull the reader into their own world regardless of the real world; however, I happened to read this novel during a few cold snowy December weeks in Northern Kentucky and being able to look out the window or actually go out and walk in the same type of weather described brilliantly in this novel made my reading experience that much better.  Interestingly enough, as I finished the book, the cold spell broke and now it’s like spring.  Coincidence?

Their throats tightened, and they shuddered the way one does when one discovers or reconfirms higher and purposeful forces brazenly and unconvincingly masquerading as coincidence.

Another “character” in the novel is Time itself.  It took a while but the novel’s narration revealed that the plot began around the turn of the Twentieth century while the majority of the story is set at the turn of the Twenty-First century or the Third Millenium.  I was about a third of the way through the book when I realized it was written in 1983 – in between these two time periods.  So most of the book took place in what at the time of its writing would be the future.  Those who lived through the Y2K era might find some parts of the book humorous.  But what I found most fascinating about Helprin’s portrayal of these time periods is that he seemed to concentrate on what was the same about them instead of what had changed.  Throughout most of my reading, I didn’t actually notice that the details of the plot took place about 100 years apart.  It was almost as though Time didn’t matter.  (hmmm…..)

I have not heard much about Mark Helprin; however, he has a number of other novels and short stories that I think have jumped close to the top of my To Be Read list.  If any of them are as good as Winter’s Tale, they will be worth reading.  Incidentally, a film version is scheduled to be released for Valentine’s Day of 2014.