Literary characters don’t get much more perfect than Harry and Catherine, the lovers in Mark Helprin’s juicy and entertaining new novel, and by perfect I don’t mean perfectly realized. I mean idealized: big, oversized, sentimental. They’re poster-sized World War II archetypes of a vanished America, when young men and women were dusting themselves off after finishing off Hitler.
After four years of fighting, Harry Copeland has returned home to Manhattan to take the reins of the leather goods business he inherited from his father. Though toughened by the horrors of war (paratrooper, 82nd Airborne), he’s not cynical. He’s a non-practicing Jew who believes in God, virtue and civilization. He’s smart (Harvard, ’37) but unpretentious, a regular guy and a superior example of humankind. He hasn’t lost his faith in truth, beauty and good luck, either — all of which come together in one lithe, narrow-waisted, well-dressed package when he sees a young woman at the Staten Island Ferry.
This turns out to be Catherine Hale, a 23-year-old Wall Street heiress from Red Lion, Pa., who is struggling to become an actress. The two hit it off immediately, partly because they are both so smart and attractive. Harry is said to look like Clark Gable (although I kept imagining Jon Hamm), and Catherine could just as well be Claudette Colbert; no sooner do they meet than they are bantering Capra-style at the Automat. Like Harry, she hates fanciness and snobbery, especially from people who won’t take her career seriously just because she’s richer than Croesus. This is especially unfortunate since, as Harry discovers when he visits her in rehearsal, Catherine sings beyond the genius of the sea. Not only is her enunciation “clear, silken and strong,” but she has a “range for which musicology has yet to come up with a name.” It’s downright metaphysical, too, this singing, which unites “past, present, and future, limning and lighting faces and souls” and all kinds of other things.
It would be grossly understating the matter to say these two fall passionately in love. That’s for other people. Harry loves Catherine’s “amplitude of reflection and the her richness of mind.” He loves “every part of her body, every stray hair, every plane or curve,” even though he holds back from getting overly acquainted with those parts because he doesn’t want to jump the gun. For Catherine, Harry is “what her heart cried out for, and strength that was bred in the bone.”
Of course, there are roadblocks to even the most perfect unions. Catherine is engaged to marry a domineering creep, her social circle doesn’t cotton to Jews and Harry — intent on being successful in business — finds himself getting squeezed by a greasy Mafioso named Verderame. Having once faced off against Nazis overseas, he finds that his future with Catherine now depends on dealing with a new enemy at home.
It’s a story tailor-made for stalwart heroes, and Harry and Catherine more than fill the bill. Their flaws, such as they are, tend to be the kind that job seekers are advised to talk up during interviews: too devout, too ethical, too smart, too tolerant and too much in love.
Helprin is channeling Hugo here rather than Tolstoy. He’s not aiming to deliver complex, three-dimensional characters stuck in the thick of moral battles, but larger-than-life personalities who know the right thing and do it without much messing around. As the book goes along, this becomes less and less of a disadvantage. Despite its often inflated, swoony prose style, the novel delivers a rich portrait of postwar America, and a late, lengthy flashback to Harry’s war experiences brings some much needed ballast to the bigger picture. There is, also, an artfulness in the way Helprin delivers a tragic dimension to the story at the end, which comes as a shock but no surprise due to his subtle, delicate preparation along the way.
The book also seems to be a subtle critique of what Helprin — a former speechwriter for Robert Dole and a columnist for the conservative Claremont Institute — once called the worst generation, by way of looking back to the greatest. This is hard to miss when Catherine’s father says the future belongs to the weak: “Whole generations of pipsqueaks will be so . . .nice you won’t be able to tell a man from a woman.” Later, when Harry expresses concerns about hurting innocent people in his forthcoming showdown with Verderame, a friend reminds him that one mustn’t let the possibility of collateral damage stand in the way of fighting evil, whether it’s the Mafia or the Nazis: “How many millions have to die, Harry, before we stop worrying about unintended consequences?”
Despite its 700 pages, “In Sunlight and in Shadow” is a sensational and perfectly gripping novel: a love story, a tribute to the fighting spirit of World War II, a hymn to the majesty of New York, and a cranky, pedantic elegy for the world that used to be.
Welch is the book reviewer for the Columbia, S.C., Free Times.
IN SUNLIGHT AND IN SHADOW
By Mark Helprin
705 pp. $28