THE PACIFIC AND OTHER STORIES
By Mark Helprin. Penguin Press. 366 pp. $25.95
Mark Helprin just might be the most romantic writer in America. The Pacific and Other Stories is rich in big, life-shaping notions (love, honor, duty, regret) filtered through the language of longing and nostalgia in such a way that the world takes on a kind of fairy-tale luster.
Here are beautiful people doing beautiful things in beautiful places, all beautifully described. In "Il Colore Ritravato," an opera impresario traveling in Venice looks for redemption in the career of an unknown but beautiful soprano. In "Passchendaele," a Montana rancher pines for his neighbor's beautiful wife.
And in the title story, set on the California coast during World War II, a beautiful woman named Paulette Ferry is hired as a precision welder at a factory that manufactures instruments for fighter planes. Her husband is soldiering in the south Pacific, and Paulette takes both pride and solace in her work. "The rhythm of the work seemed to signify something far greater than the work itself. The timing of her welds, the blinking of the arc . . . the generation of blinding flares and small pencil-shots of smoke: these acts, these qualities, and their progress, like the repetitions in the hymns that the women sang on the line, made a kind of quiet thunder that rolled through all things and that, in Paulette's deepest wishes, shot across the Pacific in performance of a miracle she dared not even name."
There's no question that Helprin can write a ravishing sentence. He does it again and again throughout this book and has been doing it for a long time now (he's published two previous story collections and four novels, including Winter's Tale and A Soldier of the Great War). The question is, what's the net effect of such a romantic vision of the world?
Each of the 16 stories begins well enough, but Helprin has a tendency to resort, sometimes at the most crucial moment, to object lessons and melodramatic gestures. "Jacob Byer and the Telephone," for example, is about an itinerant teacher who wanders into a Russian city obsessed with a new invention called the telephone. The setup is fresh and funny, the place vividly described, Jacob Byer himself likable and interesting. The whole thing feels more like a fable than modern short fiction. Like a fable, however, the story leaves the reader with an all-too-simple moral -- in this case, about the dangers of replacing faith with technology:
"He glanced back for the last time and thought that . . . the telephone would triumph . . . and spread victoriously over the whole world. Probably, after the first flush of enthusiasm, people would no longer think it divine. But having thought so, they would put a distance between them and all that was true, a distance that would perhaps be extended . . . until the gap was so great that only God could see across it."
In a remarkable scene in "Mar Nueva," one of the strongest stories in the book, a young boy comes face-to-face with a ruthless dictator named Santos-Ott. Their exchange is noteworthy for its humor and poignancy, for what it imparts about both the dictator and the boy, and for the subtlety with which Helprin renders all of the above. It's followed closely, however, by a second meeting, except this time the boy's (beautiful) older sister is present, and within minutes she has engaged Santos-Ott in a heated political debate.
"I don't have power," says Santos-Ott, "because my portrait is on postage stamps. My picture is on postage stamps because my power was born with me."
A few lines later, the sister replies, "You pervert logic for your own benefit. Perhaps because everyone is afraid of you, no one has corrected your error. Perhaps no one has even tried. Let me explain to you how you err."
And she goes on to do just that. The issue here isn't that Helprin is wrong about technology or dictators (would anyone disagree?). It's only that, in some ways, a great deal less is revealed when any writer resorts to this kind of reduction.
The Pacific and Other Stories is decidedly old-fashioned in both style and temperament but seems oddly fresh in Helprin's resistance to anything so quotidian as realism or irony. By the end of the collection I found myself not so much wishing that Helprin were less a sentimentalist, less heavy-handed in his portrayal of love and politics and human nature, as that I had it in me to see the world as he does -- a place where good and bad are easily recognized; where sadness carries the day from time to time but always evokes our better selves; a place, above all, where beauty reigns. *
Michael Knight is the author of a novel, "Divining Rod," and two collections of short fiction.