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Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin

By Jen U | Books | November 9, 2009 |

By Jen U | Books | November 9, 2009 |

I bought this book on Wednesday, thinking that I would start it Thursday morning so it could be an official Cannonball Read book. Boredom on the uptown A train changed that plan, however — it runs local after 10 p.m., and living in the hinterlands of Washington Heights, the rides can stretch on for hours without entertainment.

The problem came in when I realized that Winter’s Tale is one of those books that once you’ve started in, it grabs hold of you by the lapels and stares you down until you’ve read the whole thing in one or two orgiastic, page-turning sittings. If the doors to the train had opened to reveal that I’d ridden all the way to 207th street without getting off, I would not have been surprised.

Winter’s Tale is, quite simply, a great fucking book. It is a towering piece of writing whose phrases wrap themselves around you and linger well beyond the turning of the final page.

Winter’s Tale is, according to its back flap, about a burglar, Peter Lake, who falls in love with a consumptive millionairess named Beverley Penn in the dimming days of the Belle Epoque. It’s about that, sure; but it’s also about snow, and machinery, and bridges, and justice, and most of all, it is about New York City. There are those who wander around eulogizing the New York City of days past, of the gritty “real” LES and the days when you could get a hot dog for twenty-five cents and the hepatitis came free. I’m not one of those people, but reading Winter’s Tale made me long to see the city as it must have looked at the beginning of the last century, when there were still open spaces to be found and the land below 14th street was divided up into narrow warrens with gangs and wars and mud and tuberculosis. One of these gangs, the Short Tails, plays a vital role in the story — it is they who, led by Pearly Soames (what a name!), are chasing Peter Lake at the beginning of the book. It is while running from Pearly Soames and the Short Tails that Peter Lake meets the white horse. Oh, did I mention the horse?

To try to summarize the plot would be not only futile but foolish, as the best thing about this book isn’t so much the plot (which is intricate, and foggy, and amazing, like trying to navigate the West Village if you’ve only lived in New York for a short time and couldn’t tell Grove street from a hole in the ground). The best thing about this book is the feeling you’re left with as you’re carried along by the words, through hundreds of years of mechanization and progress, through the streets of a city that is, at its heart, anarchic and strange, and which ought to resist attempts to make it orderly for its own damn good.

“So with a city, which if it is to make its mark must be spirited, slippery, and ungovernable. A tranquil city of good laws, fine architecture, and clean streets is like a classroom of obedient dullards, or a field of gelded bulls — whereas a city of anarchy is a city of promise.”

This evening, as I was about 400 pages in, I got on the C train headed downtown and a woman excitedly started pointing at my hand and smiling. I took my headphones out and she said “Isn’t that just the best fucking book you’ve ever read?” Ladies and gents, I’m not sure if it’s the best fucking book I’ve ever read, but it’s pretty fucking close.

“And then he was suddenly overwhelmed. It was as if a thousand bolts of lightning had converged to lift him. All he could see was blue, electric blue, wet shining warm blue, blue with no end, everywhere, blue that glowed and made him cry out, blue blue, her eyes were blue.”

This review was part of the Cannonball Read series. To see a list of this year’s participants, check here. For more of Jen U’s reviews, check out her blog, Steady as She Goes.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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