Picks and Pans Review: A Winter's Tale

updated 11/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Mark Helprin

Maddeningly entrancing, eccentric, hilarious, pierced by fantasy the way a storm is pierced by lightning, this novel is, on one level anyway, about New York. It is a city, Helprin writes, that "had always been a city destined for the rule of dandies, thieves and men who resembled hard-boiled eggs. Those who made its politics were the people who poured gasoline on fires, rubbed salt into wounds and carried coals to Newcastle. And its government was an absurdity, a concoction of lunacies, a dying man obliged to race up stairs." But this is also—wonder of wonders—a serious modern novel that perceives a purpose in life. "Nothing is random, nor will anything ever be, whether a long string of perfectly blue days that begin and end in golden dimness, the most seemingly chaotic political acts, the rise of a great city, the crystalline structure of a gem that has never seen the light, the distributions of fortune, what time the milkman gets up, the position of the electron, or the occurrence of one astonishingly frigid winter after another." Helprin, author of the novel Refiner's Fire and two books of short stories, is a dazzling writer who obviously dazzles himself from time to time (as well he might in 673 pages), getting carried away in language, if not ideas. His plot makes huge leaps in time and plausibility. The main characters are a magical white horse—introduced in a stunning opening sequence—and an orphan raised by a semihuman bunch called the Baymen. The orphan grows up to become a skilled burglar and mechanic and to live more than 100 years. Among the people he encounters are a master gangster, a devilishly single-minded bridge builder, a newspaper owner whose paper occasionally runs articles sideways, and a young beauty with a fatal disease. The hero says, "The treasures of the earth are movement, courage, laughter and love," and the magic of this novel is not so much that the author obstinately searches for those treasures, but that he so often finds them. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $14.95)

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