on 30 November 2002
I have to preface my comments by stating that though I was dissappointed with this collection, I remain an ardent fan of Mark Helperin. A Soldier of the Great War is one of the most finely-realized novels of the past twenty years. It's in many ways unfare to compare a writer's masterpiece with a collection of short-stories written 25 years earlier. But simply as someone making recommendations to other readers, I would suggest starting with a writer's magnum opus and working one's way back from there. I'd recommend reading The Brother's Karamazov before suggesting Poor Folk, for instance, or Anna Karenina before the Kreutzer Sonata.
What Ellis Island represents is a writer still in the process of finding his footing. We see in many of these stories the genesis of what will become the themes and motifs that will preoccupy the mature artist. The characters are consumed by romanticism and wanderlust, even the Vermont cranes who occupy a central position in the collection. The writing is lyrical and quite often moving. At times, however,it comes across as too consciously poetic, the metaphors forced. While Helperin strives for Joycean epiphanies, his endings too often come off as carelessly constructed fade-outs. This is particularly true of "The Schreuderspitze" and "Martin Bayer." I agree, however, with the reader who singled out "A Vermont Tale" for praise. It stands out in this volume as a forerunner for the type of controlled symbolism Helperin will later perfect. It really is, to use a hackneyed term, a "haunting" tale.
The title-piece of this collection, "Ellis Island," was the source of my biggest let-down. The narrator, who goes by several names (as the mood hits or the situation dictates), is a thoroughly unsympathetic character, in my opinion, and I really don't believe Helperin intended him as such. The setting is turn-of-the century New York and "Moishe" (we'll call him that to avoid confusion here) arrives at Ellis Island along with a boatload of Jewish immigrants. When he is inspected, his odd demeanor causes the agent to lable him as an anarchist and he is shunted off along with other undesireables to be deported. He is saved from his situation by a red-haired Scandinavian beauty who presents herself herself at an opportune moment (for some reason couples are allowed more readily into the New World than singles). When finally ashore in New York, Moishe sets off on a series of improbable adventures (this is where the "magical realism" comes in). He has a brief affair with a "beautiful" artist's model (Helperin's characters never settle for plain-looking women)and finally beds down and settles with a "beautiful" seamstress. Finally he recalls the compact he'd made with the "beautiful", red-haired Dane and returns to Ellis Island (and here I don't want to spoil the ending for readers who haven't read it yet). Suffice it to say, however, that the ending intentionally parallels the ending of "A Vermont Tale," involving the loons. Let's also just leave off by saying that the ending didn't "work" for me and left me feeling that Moishe comes across as less than heroic, which Helperin hasn't led us to expect.
If this series of stories had been written by an author for whom I had lower expectations, I would have awarded it 4 stars. My standards were set so high by "A Soldier," however, that I had to settle on three. Definitely give his novels a try if you haven't already done so.