In our civilized and modern world, we have largely eliminated the idea of the ordeal, and the need for it. The closest you can get to it nowadays in this country is through the process of travel --- from the root word, of course, of "travail," which means an arduous, painful effort. And in even the most modern, sleek, streamlined travel experience, you have to go through a series of gates disguised as tests, and tests disguised as gates.
You encounter them even in the most mundane pleasure trip. Let us say you leave your comfortable home and confront the messy airport parking situation, and then go through the security checkpoint, and the intensive search process there, and the gate at the terminal, and the warning that you must not leave your seat while the plane approaches Washington. Once there, you must find your luggage (if Delta hasn't lost it), and locate the hotel shuttle, and from there find your way to the Metro station, go through yet another gate, and emerge, blinking in the sunlight, at the Navy/Archives station. From there, it is a short walk to the National Gallery, where you walk up the stairs, through the ornate marble corridors, to a room in the corner of the building, almost deserted, something of a dead end in the endless white passages. And there, you will find a large, exquisite collection of the paintings of Paul Cezanne, almost adrift in the sea of other works, but that will overwhelm you with the beauty of their colors and the rightness of their composition.
THE PACIFIC AND OTHER STORIES is like that --- a vast, overwhelming collection of many different works, in different styles, from different periods, all of which share nothing but the robust, crystalline purity of Mark Helprin's incomparable prose. It is the work of a master; but as it is a short story collection, many readers may never encounter it, preferring gaudier exhibitions that are easier to access. But those who do pluck the book off the inevitable bottom shelf at the bookstore, or belatedly click on it from their Amazon.com wish list, will be immensely rewarded for their time and trouble.
Here, as in Helprin's masterful novels WINTER'S TALE, MEMOIR FROM ANTPROOF CASE, and A SOLDIER OF THE GREAT WAR, the idea of the ordeal predominates. Helprin's characters are always facing some sort of ordeal or other. In this volume alone we have an injured British paratrooper trying to change the course of a great battle, a Manhattan general contractor trying to balance the scales of tragedy by creating the perfect apartment, and a Marine war wife trying to find comfort and strength in the blinding glow of a welding torch.
The tales in THE PACIFIC AND OTHER STORIES span the globe from the Mediterranean seawalls of Israel to the mountains of British Columbia, and going in time from Victorian Manhattan to the ashes of September 11, 2001. But despite the immense diversity of their settings, and the unforgettable richness of their characters (which include Mickey Mantle, among others), one tie binds them all together, and that is the quality of the Helprin prose, which is rhythmic and magisterial and ornate, but possessed with a startling clarity. And, in the tradition of all great short stories, his prose packs a powerful narrative punch.
THE PACIFIC AND OTHER STORIES is a remarkable, stunning, overwhelming collection of great stories --- great not only because of their skill, but because they speak of time, loss, renewal, and the powerful ordeals that each of us must undertake in our own way. Helprin's greatness is in that he speaks to those "things that are great and never ending, that require a lifetime of work to do right, that are God's gift to man and fill the world with their abundance, that have not changed in thousands of years and never will." Helprin's prose is such a gift, and it is yours for the taking.
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on January 14, 2011