FREDDY AND FREDERICKA

By Mark Helprin

Penguin Press. 553 pp. $27.95

The cover of Mark Helprin's massive Freddy and Fredericka calls it "a novel." Like nearly everything else about Helprin's latest offering, this turns out to be facetious.

In his best works -- Refiner's Fire (1977), A Soldier of the Great War (1991) and, probably most of all, Winter's Tale (1983) -- Helprin has defied categorization and woven visions from equal parts of fantasy and realism. These books best define the wide range of Helprin's universe. Refiner's Fire and A Soldier of the Great War drew, in part, from his experiences in the military (particularly stints in the Israeli army and air force), and his much-loved Winter's Tale is Herbert Asbury's ferocious The Gangs of New York brilliantly reconceived as a rough fairy tale. But in Freddy and Fredericka, Helprin's instincts have jumped the track, and he has given in to whimsy.

The title characters are the prince of Wales and his wife, reduced by the modern age to tabloid fodder for the British press. A secret society devoted to restoring the monarchy to power sends them on a mission to reconquer America; they are dropped by parachute into New Jersey as a prelude to getting involved in the presidential race. . . . Stop me if you've heard this one before.

At first glance, Freddy and Fredericka seems to be a satire of the British royal family, but nothing in it is as ludicrous as the antics of the real royals. The second half of the book appears to be a send-up of American politics, but it is broad and toothless -- surprisingly so for a writer as well known for his stinging editorials in the Wall Street Journal as for his fiction.

Several characters are given cartoon names that identify their function in the plot -- the prince serves a sexual apprenticeship to Lady Phoebe Boylingehotte, the leader of the Labour Party is Mr. Apehand -- and numerous others, such as Doctor Popcorn, Canal Diggeridoo and Lord Piggleswade, have names that might yield some hidden meaning to a reader more astute than I. Helprin strains for a manic effect halfway between Monty Python and Voltaire, the Marx Brothers and Swift, but the punch lines to several long dialogues are heavy, web-footed clunkers that are bafflingly unwitty. "Have you ever read an Italian newspaper?" someone asks. "I imagine it's like being on drugs." And, "I sometimes get presidents and famous accountants mixed up." And, "A man never rises to greater heights than when he does not know where he is going." The point of these and many other jokes is as elusive as a French symbolist poem; one wishes an editor, a friend, somebody, had been there during the writing of this book to ask Helprin exactly what he meant.

Lines that can be understood are apparently intended to let us know that the book's author is educated:

" 'There are a lot of discos in Prague. I've been to them. I may have danced with Kafka.'

" 'Probably not: he was a bit of a bug.' "

And, " 'I'm working' "

" 'On what?' "

" 'Gibbon.' "

" 'The monkey?' "

And, "Their mouths struck as if in a Dantean travesty of a kiss. . . ."

It's a toss-up as to who will find these jokes less funny, those who get them or those who don't.

As if to remind us that he can be a superb prose stylist, Helprin pours out sentences such as, "Three marginicidal kings have perished there. It is beyond the dissilient cliffs of pure water that cleave the great ocean and fall through infinite tunnels of mist. It is where the vast stinking body of the expired Dragon of Penrith was laid to rest, only to vapourise and disappear immediately upon contact with the white-hot ground. Oh, devils! Oh, God forsaken! Oh, darkness, stench, and flame!"

Clearly, the passage is meant to sound comically overwrought, but even on that level it is, like much of the book, overwritten. In contrast, Freddy and Fredericka stops cold, and the writing goes flat and earnest when the author seems to step in and tell us what the book is really about. "There was no way properly," reads one such passage near the end, "to credit or acknowledge the scores of millions who had fought in the name of the king. . . . Only God could so acknowledge, and, as for the king, this was the unbearable burden that would press him down for the rest of his days." If I'm not mistaken, the author is displaying an affection for the traditions of the British monarchy that would make T.S. Eliot blush.

Helprin is fond of telling interviewers that he is a traditionalist who doesn't read modern fiction, but Freddy and Fredericka is padded with enough tedious wordplay and exhausted literary conceits to fill several volumes by the authors Helprin says he doesn't read. The book never congeals as a fable, satire, farce or anything except a royal self-indulgence. *

Allen Barra is a staff writer for Salon.com. His latest book is "The Last Coach: A Life of Paul 'Bear' Bryant," forthcoming in September.