A fanatical hatred for coffee, a piercing love of women, indignation at the world order and a serious problem with authority distinguish Helprin's octogenarian narrator, writing his memoirs from a hilltop in Brazil: "Call me anything you want. No one knows my name anymore."
He recounts his circuitous path from an idyllic boyhood in Hudson, N.Y., destroyed by the murder of his parents, to these final days in the insect-ridden town of Niterói, where he lives with his young wife, the lush and promiscuous Marlise, and her son Funio, whom he didn't father but loves as his own.
The hero's adventures mimic a 20th-century Sinbad's. Confined as an adolescent to a Swiss lunatic asylum for killing a man, he goes on to become a World War II flying ace, an international investment banker and the husband of a billionairess whom he loses because of—coffee!
Convoluted, hilarious and heartrending, the farcical plot follows the execution of a great crime and reveals in its final pages the reason for the narrator's obsession with "a filthy corruption brewed from a bean that poisons its own tree." Helprin (A Soldier of the Great War) has written an irresistible novel of wrenching truths about revenge, redemption and love. (Harcourt, Brace, $24)