The Pacific and Other Stories, by Mark Helprin, Read by William Dufris, Sound Library, 2004
After having rather enjoyed Mark Helprin’s latest novel, Freddy and Fredericka, I had rather high hopes for his latest short story collection, The Pacific and Other Stories, the writing for both books overlapping in time frame somewhat. The deft humor, broad wit, and rather old-fashioned sense of honor and chivalry tickled a certain part of my mind that occasionally goes in for more old-fashioned styled writing. Helprin’s manner is a kind of anachronistic old school seriousness leavened with mostly clean gags and jokes (though he’s not above profanity or vulgarity). Basically simple stories as simple morality tales, Good and Evil quite apparent and obvious. In this sense, Helprin, as a political conservative (he wrote speeches for the elder Bush), is also a cultural conservative of a certain decent kind. There is little in his fiction one wouldn’t find in and of itself in stories written fifty or one hundred years ago and printed up in Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, Harpers, or other magazines from the golden age of the American short story.
Sometimes this can be a good thing, a kind of tonic whose healthiness you can almost feel as you read the story, bracing, an eat-your-spinach antidote to the irony-laden metatextual stories of today. When it’s good, believe me, it is very, very good.
The Pacific and Other Stories, however, is only good occasionally, such as the opening tale, “Il Colore Ritrovato” where Helprin’s comic sense and timing seems to hum like the world spinning under your feet on a bright sunshiny morning. Then there are portentous grinds like “Monday” that almost literally begs your indulgence in some 9/11 based garment rending and noble far-off looks, Helprin practically standing on the bar shouting he, and only he, truly remembers the dead, by God, and someone has to know, man, someone has to know.
That last act is tiresome, to say the least, fiction as a kind of hectoring guilt trip wherein the author says, “I know you say you remember, but can you be this valorous?” The effect of that story placing so early in the line up (third in the collection) undercuts the effect of the other stories, casts a shadow over them to such a degree that every World War Two reference, mention, or story that follows it can’t help but be weighted down with the reader’s suspicion that somehow these are metaphors for the real clash of civilizations going on right now in which noble men with nobility in their noble hearts write noble stories about other noble men doing noble things.
And so, the whole collection deflates sadly from the promise of its opening merely by the placement of this one story. Had Helprin lodged “Monday” in the closing pages, it might have served more as a coda, a look what came before and now look what needs to be in the author’s mind, or maybe it may have been dismissed as a bad-idea-last-minute page padder.
And backing up, let’s be quite clear, there is a lot of WWII going on here. If the story isn’t directly about a soldier, it’s about someone who knew a soldier, someone who lost a a soldier, or it takes place directly preceding or proceeding the war. Again, nothing wrong with that as a focus. Philip Roth writes almost exclusively about mid-century Newark, New Jersey these days and he’s still putting out some of the finest stuff on the page right now.
The opening story, let me repeat, is the best thing in the collection. Were you to pick up a copy at the book store, sit down somewhere quiet, read these thirty odd pages, the reflection of an impresario who back when he merely wanted to be an impresario, back when he discovered the voice that made him rich, never knew what fame and success would mean, you’d read with joy. The early collaborations between Cassati and his young discovery, Rosanna, are lively and full of guiltless pep and vinegar.
“What is your name [asks Cassati as Rosanna sits cracking nuts and swilling wine]? Here we are having dinner, and I don’t even know.”
“Rosanna Sungili,” she answered, as if she knew that this was soon to change, as indeed it would. Imagine an American or English opera singer whose name was Jane Octopus-Slice. She might be the greatest singer in the world, but much would stand in her way.
Likewise, her mistaking a picture of the temple priest taking baby Jesus in swaddling clothes for Father Christmas stealing a mummy is an inspired bit of idiocy. The story includes one of the best depictions I’ve read in some time of how seeing a certain painting can transport you through rapturous transcendental feelings of unreality.
Golden-throated talent himself, William Dufris, has a great deal of fun with this one, pitching all the Italian accents just a hair’s shading shy of straight up caricature. Elsewhere, he is up to his usual standards of gruff voices, soft voices, and deep voices, though his female characters tend to feature less variegation.
This is followed by one of several stories listed in here that are non-traditional in that there is very little story to the story. “Reconstruction,” “Prelude,” “Rain,” “Charlotte of the Utrechtseweg,” and the title story, “The Pacific” are not heavy on the action, the character development, or the rising and falling of dramatic narrative. Instead, they generally serve as vignette-ish character sketches of reactions and reflections within a compressed time frame. “Reconstruction” is mostly the narrator’s memory of his father and a slight bit of narrative about a dinner party he and his wife attend, though like the other bits it feels a little unfinished, a portion of a larger story.
The best of those sketch pieces would probably be “Charlotte” in which the main character, already shot, kneels in the street in Germany, unable to lie down, remembering his beautiful daughter back home. His memories are mixed and Charlotte is both adult and child in his fading vision of her. Helprin here makes good work of his tightly constricted narrative, the brevity conveying how quickly it all ends, how short life really is, and how small sometimes the most precious moments can be.
A kind of hinge story in the collection, “Perfection” nestles itself in the book’s middle pages and is the best demonstration of what is so completely right in a Helprin story and so completely wrong. It concerns itself with Roger, a puny Hasidic Jew, a teenage mystic who believes god has called on him to rescue the “House of Ruth” where Mickey Mental suffers for the Yenkiss. Helprin first paints lovely comic scenes among the rabbis, the butchers, and the Hasidic youth of Roger’s neighborhood. When Roger explains to Schnaiper the butcher that he’s replaced Luba the usual boy because Luba is in training to become a polar rabbi, able to answer such delicate queries as whether or not walrus is kosher, the scene is the first of several wonderful back and forths between the two.
Only later, once we have accepted that Roger actually gets treated to a chance at bat with the Yankees, with Yogi Berra catching, and that Roger, who has never batted before, who calls a bat an “axe,” once we accept the magical moment of him pounding the cover off the ball, of being able to hit anywhere he’s directed, of being able to field any position by the power of god. Once we’ve accepted these daffy doings, Helprin rips the story away from us with a completely jarring and inconsistent recollection by Roger, in a talk to the Yankees on how to achieve perfection, of his time in a concentration camp.
Never mind that Roger at age three would be unlikely to have memories wherein he understood the concepts of death, recognized gasoline, and understood deeply the horror of his situation from an existential viewpoint (rather than a mere survival one), never mind that. It is much as in “Monday,” where Helprin feels the need to bury a sermon in his fiction. If it only sorta-kinda doesn’t come off nearly as preachy here because Helprin’s using a puppet in the character of Roger to get his message across. Which is to say all the hectoring of the lecture issues from a character’s mouth instead of through narrative exposition.
But it is the collection’s third story, the dour “Monday” where Helprin tosses in the towel on decent story-telling and decides to merely make with the serious sentiment and chest beating. “Monday” tells the story of a construction/refurbishment/renovation company manager Fitch in the aftermath of 9/11. As convoys of trucks race by in the street in the weeks after carrying bodies, “he would stop, turn to the street, put his hand on his heart, and bow his head.” We learn later that “Even by January, he…would never fail to bow his head in respect, though by January he was just about the only one who still did.”
This is one of those low-blow moments of cheaply used sentimentality where the author is letting us know in fifty foot high Hollywoodland style lettering that Fitch is indeed ONE OF THE LAST HONORABLE MEN (unlike you disrespectful bastards, where’s your hearts?). And indeed, Fitch is honest and honorable and the only decent contractor in New York, probably the world.
Busy with tons of work because he does quality work, Fitch throws his schedule into chaos when a call comes in from an old client who needs an apartment redone and he takes it. The woman’s husband was killed in the South Tower and he himself with his crew watched from the top of a building as it happened. Determined to make some kind of gesture, Fitch does her whole apartment for free, upgrades all of her material to the highest quality, works non-stop for one solid month (in which he is joined by most of his crew, because they too are MEN who have HONOR), and depletes his entire life savings.
He does find the woman attractive, we are let to know, but “He could suppress his desires because he was an honorable man,” we are subsequently informed, and when an author resorts to this kind of testimonial headline writing, it’s kind of a clue that we are seeing not so much a real person as envisioned and created by an author, but really an idealized portrait of a type (generally more often then not resembling the author’s more inflated sense of self).
I’m entirely without the means to adequately explain what motivates people to dredge through recent tragedy for their art. Whether they do it for self-therapeutic motives, whether they are so shaken by the experience they are unable to find it in them not to respond, whether they are eager to cash in on other people’s need for therapy and rumination on loss, whatever. But I can say that art of this kind, art that almost seems to exist solely as a kind of castigation of the reader, an inescapable comparison of the puny human sitting with book in hand with the Galahad on the page, using recent tragedy to evoke that comparison, is as loathsome a use of fiction as I’ve experienced in some time. The finger-pointing disguised as admirable munificence and chivalry calls too much attention to itself, like a man loudly asking after a beggar’s health as he slides his coppers into the cup then glares at you.
I went into the collection thinking I’d like to read more Helprin. I left it almost convinced I never would again.