The Prince and Princess of Wales make a royal cock-up of the monarchy and as penance are sent on a daffy mission—to conquer America.
On the face of it, Helprin (Memoir From Antproof Case, 1995, etc.) is just about the least likely to produce a slaphappy comedy, yet that’s exactly what he’s done here, starting in embarrassing disaster, zooming through epic travels and ending in glorious redemption. The story imagines what would have happened were Charles and Diana (the barely fictionalized heroes) still a going concern, and had the powers-that-be given them a stern talking to about embarrassing the hell out of the royal family, then sent them on a self-improvement quest. After a beginning that lays bit too much groundwork but thoroughly illustrates how bad at being royal Freddy (insanely bright and well-read but goofy-looking and utterly impervious to common sense) and Fredericka (gorgeous and close to brilliant, but shallow to the point of nonsentience) are, Helprin sets up a surreal episode providing the two of them a murkily described mission (to retake America for the Empire, or something) designed by a man who just may be the incarnation of Merlin. It hardly matters that the story stops making a whole lot of sense after about the first 50 pages, however, given what a lively romp Helprin makes of the whole affair, packing it full of vaudevillian wordplay and rapturous flights of fanciful prose as Freddy and Fredericka stumble through the baffling land of America—initially confused and ultimately elated. The tale begins to lose some steam when the royal couple (after stints as manual laborers, dentists and forest-fire watchers) ends up working on a presidential campaign and Helprin starts to lay on the Tory politics with an unusually (for him) thick trowel. Even in the midst of some structural clumsiness, though, he frequently astounds with the freshness of voice and the oddly soaring majesty of this admittedly silly and inconsequential fable.
A comic call for greatness in a mediocre era.