A few years ago, in the midst of one of my worst depressions, I picked up Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. It was summer, and I was in the throes of an impossible romance. For a week, I rode the subway, and read it in the cool air—up to Harlem, and back to Brooklyn, from Queens to Manhattan, from Woodlawn to Union Square. Being underground with it was the only respite I had from my heat-induced misery. The book made me dream of snow and darkness and the emptiness of winter. It served as an outlet for all of my unrequited love, past and present and future.
The book is stunning. It’s an elegy to the history of New York. It’s a fairy tale of biblical proportions. It’s a fantasy novel written well (ha! you thought that was an oxymoron).
I’m trying to do justice to what it accomplishes, but I keep on typing sentences, and deleting them, because I can’t put into words how the book seems less a novel than a re-telling of some kind of epic, primal dream that I’ve had for years, but always wake up forgetting. A reviewer in the New York Times said it best:
“I find myself nervous, to a degree I don’t recall in my past as a reviewer, about failing the work, inadequately displaying its brilliance.”
Winter’s Tale is a fable about Peter Lake, an Irish man born in the mythical underbelly of New York City, who becomes a pickpocket and a thief. One day, he attempts to rob a mansion set in the woodlands of pre-developed Central Park, and comes upon Beverly Penn, a great beauty, who is dying of consumption.
“And then he was suddenly overwhelmed. It was if a thousand bolts of lightning had converged to lift him. All he could see was blue, electric blue, wet shining warm blue, blue with no end, everywhere, blue that glowed and made him cry out, blue, blue, blue, her eyes were blue.”
Every night, consumed in fever deliriums, she sleeps on the roof of her wealthy father’s house.
“Then she began to dress for bed: a far more practical matter, for Beverly Penn slept upon a platform on the roof, and it was unforgivingly cold up there. But despite the cold and perhaps because of it, the sights she saw were what other people would have called dreams, desires, miracles.”
Beverly, practically a child upon her death bed, has never been in love because for most of her life, she’s been isolated by her illness. When Peter comes upon her, he falls in love, and they spend the rest of her day’s in each other’s thrall.
“He had never had a family. But there he was, suddenly, almost a husband and a father. Small scenes can be so beautiful that they change a man forever. He would never forget that noontime on a lake of ice, nor would he ever forget her words.
‘Drive hard,’ she had said. He would. Things were different. All he wanted now was love.”
When she dies, Peter spends the rest of his life looking for her. He never ages. He never dies. He has faith that one day, she will return to him.
“By spring, Beverley’s soul had ascended. She died on a windy gray day in March when the sky was full of darting crows and the world lay prostrate and defeated after winter. Peter Lake was at her side, and it ruined him forever.”
I don’t remember the book much because I read it so many years ago now, but you should read it. It’s on a bunch of lists, including a New York Time’s list of the best works of fiction of the past 25 years, and Esquire’s list of the 75 greatest books ever written.
One reviewer for the Guardian, a lover of fantasy novels, wrote this beautiful essay about it last year, and how it changed his childhood.
“After reading Winter’s Tale, I think I decided I didn’t want to go to New York any more, I wanted to go to Helprin’s New York, and I can’t think of a better time to go than when the pavements are thick with frost and the snow flurries around deserted streets.”
The reason why I’m thinking of it today is because I just bought it for Caleb. For the first time, there is no unrequited love in my life. There is no yearning. There is just Caleb.
It’s his birthday today. Tonight, we’ll go to the Oyster Bar in Grand Central for dinner, above which Peter Lake lived in the eaves during his years as a thief. This winter, we’ll walk the old, 19th century streets of Brooklyn together, near the apartment he just rented in Fort Greene.
With Caleb, New York is magical, mythical, nostalgic, the space of a dream. I can be Beverly Penn with him. Eternal. Lady-like. Delicate. Needy.
For you, Beverly Penn. For your sable coats, which you wore on your roof while you watched the stars, and waited for your death. For inspiring the love of a messiah, Peter Lake. For the space in which you exist, that of winter. For being the driving energy behind a great story. For your beauty, and your delicate features. For you, Beverly Penn, in the months of approaching winter, on a day when I’m in love, you’re my icon of the week.