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Review-a-Day
Esquire
Wednesday, November 3rd, 2004


 

The Pacific and Other Stories

by Mark Helprin

Go Ahead and Wallow

A review by Noah Oppenheim

Mark Helprin's short stories should not be consumed in one sitting. Otherwise, you may drown in melancholy. Cracking open The Pacific and Other Stories, the first collection in nearly a decade from the industrious novelist and political columnist, is like uncorking a bottle of red wine and playing a Coltrane LP in a dark, smoky den: therapeutic, if that's your sort of thing.

In fact, if you savor nostalgia, you can't go wrong with these tales of sad men looking for redemption. And we're not talking the happy, uplifting sort of redemption. We're talking the English Jew who sails off to die "honorably" in 1939 Poland kind of redemption, or reliving in precise detail a soldier's slow death. Helprin's characters cling to honor for solace, their valor disguising heartbreak -- over a better life not lived, a daughter left behind, or a husband lost. Take, for instance, the contractor who sacrifices his life savings to build a 9/11 widow a Brooklyn palace because, as he explains, "my life will be buoyant, and my death will be tranquil." He also wants to sleep with her. It is the art of the Pyrrhic seduction.

That these characters' losses hit us in our gut is a testament to Helprin's special genius -- his ability to evoke a time and place so authentically, it is hard to imagine that he didn't live through the Second World War or visit a newly liberated Paris. These stories read as a vivid travelogue of regret.

Yet they're not your regrets, and that's the pleasure. The ameliorative power of wallowing is to visit a place so dark that your world seems a bit brighter. Helprin's heroes suffer richly, and to truly immerse yourself in this fine collection is to consider that affliction can be a blessing.


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