"Memoir from Antproof Case," by Mark Helprin. 514 pages. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company. $24
Opening a Mark Helprin novel is like walking into the Empire State Building and discovering the elevators are broken. If you want to leave the ground floor, you're going to have to exert yourself. Most of us won't even reach the mezzanine, much less the observation deck. But whatever level is attained, the view is worth the effort.
Not for Helprin the simple plot. Not for him the obvious symbolism, though it might appear so on first encounter. His work exists on myriad planes, however, each can be appreciated for its own sake. Besides, the man writes like an angel.
In "Memoir from Antproof Case," Helprin gives us a biography, a history lesson, a manual on aerial combat, a morality play, a murder mystery, a primer on grand larceny, a love story (actually several), an exercise in psychoanalysis and a metaphor for the 20th century. Through it all percolates a dissertation on the evils of coffee.
The setting is the present. The protagonist, an elderly American, is a coffeephobe, living out his days in Brazil. He is a character of complexities and rare sensibilities who has been in conflict, against forces without and within, most of his life. He is writing not just a memoir, but a legacy for a new generation. Said memoir skips across time like a stone skimmed across a river -- although that stone does not obey the laws of physics. It doubles back on itself and turns over and hops left and right. But when it finally settles, and the concentric rings have ceased rippling, the meaning of all that has gone before finally sinks in. Not for nothing is the book's epigraph a quote from Hamlet: "By indirections find directions out."
Helprin's strength lies in his ability to invent a world that is thoroughly improbable but eminently believable. Of course, lovers can walk 30 miles through the snow-blanketed mountain night as effortlessly as if crossing a village green. Certainly, a generation of Brazilian naval cadets have graduated thinking that an English expression of approval is "yaw mutha."
Helprin's magic lies in his descriptive powers, with which he has been more than abundantly blessed. Most writers cobble at wordcraft; Helprin is among the few who create art. And his art makes much of theirs seem like the literary equivalent of Elvis on black velvet.
In Helprin's eyes, "lost bees [dash] through the light like drops of melting gold," and over the sea, the clouds "congregate in vast columns . . . rising so high and with such stateliness and show that if I didn't know better I would think that this is where they mate and die."
Lest you fear suffocating from a surfeit of ethereal prose, know that humor often will pounce. For example, a conference room full of economists drinking Glenlivet and eating peanuts "smelled like the zoo in Edinburgh."As for the chapter describing a theft from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a caper featuring a wheelchair, a disgruntled Manx and a pompous preppy administrator: Do not read this in public, because you will laugh out loud and attract unwanted attention from strangers.
"Memoir from Antproof Case" is one of those books you will want to savor slowly. It is one you will want to reread -- perhaps several times -- to appreciate the full measure of its message and the beauty of its language.
P.S. Incredibly, Mr. Helprin does fail miserably at one blessedly brief point early on. He should never again attempt to write in Irish dialect. But at least it's nice to know he isn't perfect.
Karen Zautyk is a member of the editorial board of the New York Daily News. Previously, she was a suburban news editor and copy editor for the News. She began her journalism career at the now-defunct Newark Evening News in New Jersey and subsequently worked as reporter. In addition to writing editorials, she does travel articles and humor columns published nationally.