Thursday, November 8, 2007

Refiner's Fire

I was overjoyed when I realized there was one more Helprin novel I had not read -- his first, the full title being Refiner’s Fire: The Life and Adventures of Marshall Pearl, A Foundling.

Marshall is born on a vessel packed with Jewish refugees running a British blockade of the new state of Israel. His mother dies after giving birth, so the ship’s captain sends him to America, where he is raised by a family named Livingston. While still in high school, Marshall and the Livingstons relocate to Jamaica for a couple of years, where he gets involved in fighting Rastafarian bandits.

Back home he goes to Harvard, but drops out in his senior year, wanders America for a while, and has some surreal experiences. He spends an unknown length of time working in a Midwest slaughterhouse, after being recruited by a black man named Monroe, who (like Robert Service’s Sam McGee) warms himself in the flames of a furnace. In the Rockies he meets a biologist who is studying eagles, and whose 40-foot telescope has the ability to look into the past. He is the sole survivor of a shrimp boat that sinks in a fierce storm, only to discover later that the boat was lost years ago.

Finally he is reunited with Paul Levy, the captain on whose ship he was born. Levy explains that the reason Marshall’s life has been so erratic is because of his lost heritage as a Jew. Marshall soon ends up in Israel, where he is conscripted and badly wounded during a major Palestinian offensive.

These are the broad outlines of the novel, whose chief attraction is the quality of Helprin’s prose. It flows across the page like a mountain cataract, an exuberant torrent of wit, silliness, and striking images. A little boy invents a horse bicycle. A little girl wonders what would happen if the White Sea flowed into the Black Sea. A mechanic works on a car "as if he were cleaning a fish and did not fear the entrails."

[Soldiers] had a crazed demented look which caused their eyes to seem like the windows of a slot machine in which were visible not the symbols of apples, diamonds, or bells, but rather a high-speed shuffling of evil thoughts, remembrances and anticipations of evil deeds, and the singular electrical flashes of the evil mind.

Helprin fans will forgive the fairy tale ending, having already been rewarded by the rich prose, the wild and goofy adventures, and the enjoyment of Helprin’s trademark passions: horses, trains, paintings, mountains, New York, the Hudson, winter, war, etc. In particular they will enjoy recognizing in Refiner’s Fire the seeds of all his later novels.

A punishment meted out to Marshall in school (he is forced to eat a coffee bean) beomes the departure point for Memoir from an Antproof Case.

The Italian family that he stays with before attending Harvard (the daughter heads off to attend the University of Rome) presages A Soldier of the Great War, which is set in Italy during WWI.

Marshall’s travels across America are repeated by the Prince and Princess of Wales in Freddy and Fredericka.

In Winter’s Tale the "colour gravity" affliction of Pearly Soames harks back to Marshall Pearl’s seizures caused by flashing colours, and the impassable cloud wall that surrounds New York City is first glimpsed during the storm that sinks the shrimp boat in Refiner’s Fire.

Is it Helprin’s best? Probably not. I still prefer Winter's Tale, followed by A Soldier of the Great War. But then I've noticed that (Helprin being such an unique writer) people often like best the first of his books they encounter.

Official Site:
Mark Helprin
Harvard Magazine article: Literary Warrior