The next time you find yourself in conversation with the kind of fussbudget reader who laments the state of contemporary literature, bemoaning that “they don’t write them like they used to,” here’s a suggestion: Pull a copy of Mark Helprin’s “In Sunlight and In Shadow” from your bag, gently slide it over (don’t wing it, unless you want to face the potential repercussions of a personal-injury lawsuit from this hulking tome), and suggest riffling its pages.
“In Sunlight” comes bearing all the virtues of the old-fashioned epic: sweeping story, unabashed romanticism, and an undisguised interest in morality. In 1947 New York, a returned veteran named Harry Copeland spots the most beautiful woman he has ever seen aboard the Staten Island ferry. Catherine Thomas Hale is already engaged to a wealthy WASP entrepreneur named Victor — “so stolid and gray,” Harry later observes of him, “that he could easily have been mistaken for a post office” — but the intensity of the connection between her and this mysterious stranger overcomes any such surface obstacles.
Helprin’s book also bears many of the form’s limitations. He is no relativist, but an old-fashioned spinner of pointed parables, his characters elegant cardboard, lacking bone or sinew. Harry is a sensitive warrior, forged in the crucible of war, and reluctantly dragged back to an identity only recently jettisoned. And Catherine is pure of spirit, noble, and possessed of a voice so beautiful it stops listeners dead in their tracks. Their love affair is untroubled by emotional storms or wavering hearts. The only threats to their union come externally: Victor’s thirst for revenge, and a gangster named Verderamé intent on bleeding Harry’s company dry.
Sentimentality is never a stranger, with Helprin so immune to its pitfalls as to even summon a scrappy dog named Debra that Harry and his comrades stumble across while fighting in Europe.
One does not read Helprin for psychological complexity, but instead for the kind of pleasures serious readers might associate with adolescence. It is a literary commonplace that one shouldn’t reread the novels of Thomas Wolfe after the age of, say, 16 — that some books are treasured destinations to which one can never return. “In Sunlight” is a summation of Helprin’s previous work, bearing traces of his earlier novels. Here are the paeans to WASP royalty of his misguided “Freddy and Fredericka”; here is the wartime romance of the remarkable “A Soldier of the Great War”; and here is the urban fantasia of Helprin’s best-loved “Winter’s Tale.” If never the equal of the latter two masterpieces, the baggy “In Sunlight” is dappled with moments of exceptional beauty. And it is, above all, a poem to New York City.
Times there are, though, when the reader must chide Helprin for the unnecessary archaic flourishes of his diction, reversing the course of a sentence like an engineer seeking to dam a river and send it flowing backwards. “Catherine,” a theater director tells a favorite actress, “on that one note, this play depends.” In his devotion to the timeless attributes — “tenderness, ceremony, courtesy, sacrifice, love, form, regard” — Helprin is often naggingly unaware of the timely attributes of concision and play. One strongly suspects that “In Sunlight” might have benefited from weighing in at 300 pages, not 700.
Helprin, whose enthusiasm for his plotline occasionally lags, is nonetheless at his best in snapping sepia-toned photographs of his city. New York becomes a receptacle for human emotion, and its occasional pleasures, homely and ill-formed as they might be, are much like those of this kaleidoscopic novel: “An isle in the water, infinitely complex and forever giving, the hive of millions. Everything happens there, just and unjust, beautiful and hideous, joyful, painful, powerful — and it’s all there for you threescore and ten if you can make it. Then it’s gone.”Saul Austerlitz is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com.