Sixteen tales of war, love, the achingly beautiful past and the fallen present.
It’s been about a decade since his last novel (Memoir From Antproof Case, 1995), so Helprin tosses out a story collection, as if that will be enough. And it almost is. The opener, “Il Colore Ritrovato,” is a graceful inversion of the expected, a good taste of what’s to come—as an opera impresario tries to convince a young singer not to sign with him yet, as success could dull her gift. “A Brilliant Idea, and His Own” is a straightforward adventure, set in WWII Italy: A British forward fire observer critically injures himself parachuting behind German lines and struggles to stay alive to accomplish his mission. Smaller pieces are less resonant, like the title story, about a female welder who pines for her love serving in the Pacific, and “Sail Shining in White,” about an aged retiree who sails into a massive hurricane, most likely to die but absolutely determined to live. The jewel here is the aptly titled “Perfection.” In 1950s New York, it follows a 14-year-old Holocaust survivor who’s given a divine mission: to save the Yankees from their slump. The absurd scene at the center of the story is oddly delightful: a slight boy in full Orthodox regalia, ignorant of baseball and everything modern, striding to the plate at Yankee Stadium and showing “Mickey Mental” how to hit home runs. Its magical vision of baseball’s glorious design seems almost divine (“All was grace and perfection here, all just and redeemed, all prayer answered, ratios exact, rhythms perfect, laws obeyed”), the kind of thing W.P. Kinsella was once able to conjure at will.
Helprin needs space to work his magic, room to build up steam, but even in these short bursts, he often accomplishes what others take hundreds of pages to achieve.