‘The Pacific’ coasts along sea of emotion

The title of Mark Helprin's new collection of short stories, "The Pacific," is an apt one. Just as that wide western body of water varies from shore to shore but is united by the thread of geography, so the stories Helprin has assembled differ in some senses, but are unified by the underpinnings of deep emotion conjured up by their author.

Almost all the stories in "The Pacific" are quietly powerful. Helprin isn't ashamed to select the most dramatic backdrops for his stories (Italy in World War II, post-9/11 New York), but somehow, through his deft combination of emotive characters and tight-focused plots, he resists the temptation to sink into treacle.

Among the best of "The Pacific" are "Il Colore Ritravato," "Last Tea with the Armorers" and "Passchendaele." Perhaps not coincidentally, all three deal with some facet of love. In "Il Colore Ritravato" (Italian for "Color Rediscovered"), the disenchanted manager of a famous opera star stumbles upon a star-in-the-making singing on a Venetian street corner. His find throws him into a moral quandary, however, as he realizes that in her rise to fame and fortune his current star has left behind happiness and true love. He fears this will happen to the young woman as well, especially since her less talented boyfriend will be left behind as she becomes a star.

"Last Tea with the Armorers" also looks at love, but from the perspective of a guarded Israeli woman who is alone in life, save for her father. She slowly realizes her own mortality as signs of time's passage gradually accumulate, and she is presented with one last shot at love in the form of a mysterious student visiting her city. In "Passchendaele," the reader glimpses at a poignant half-relationship between a Canadian rancher and his neighbor's wife and its ultimate effect on the rancher.

Some of Helprin's stories, most noticeably "La Mar Nueva", dangerously skirt the edge of melodrama. Two others — "Perfection" and "Jacob Bayer and the Telephone" — fail to communicate to the reader what it means to be a Jewish person on the East Coast; unless of course, that person is Jewish and lives in New York.

It's interesting to note the different positions Helprin takes in his stories. For instance, materialism is at the cause of the main character's heartache in "Vandevere's House," but it soothes a 9/11-widow in "Monday." The possibility of love is too much for a man to bear in "Passchendaele," but it is just what the main character in "Prelude" needs to move on with his life after his parents' death.

On the whole, Helprin's stories are solidly constructed with an economical use of adjectives and a heavy dose of atmosphere. The writing is sparse — no superlatives or hyperbole here — even in tone. The stories seem to roll gradually toward a crescendo much like the waves on the book's cover.

Grade: AB

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on Feb. 24 2005.