While Kirkus Reviews called Mark Helprin’s first novel Refiner’s Fire (1978) “grandiose,” it received more positive reviews from other major media outlets. I first read it five years after it came out when, my excited reading of Winter’s Tale (1983), led me on a search for another Helprin book. Winter’s Tale remains my favorite, followed by A Soldier of the Great War (1991). While In Sunlight and Shadow (2012) seemed to be to be less successful than the others, it contains the same dazzling images, imagination, and prose I loved in Winter’s Tale and Refiner’s Fire. In rereading Refiner’ Fire this past week, I believe it still holds up as a compelling novel about a man whose diverse experience refine and purify him as surely as a refiner’s fire purifies silver.
Publisher’s Description: “Born on an illegal immigrant ship off the coast of Palestine, Marshall Pearl is immediately orphaned and soon brought to America, where he grows up amidst fascinating and idiosyncratic privilege that is, however, not nearly as influential in regard to his formation as the pull of his origins though they are unknown to him. A cross between Fielding´s Tom Jones and the story of Moses, Refiner´s Fire is a great and colorful adventure that ends in a crucible of battle, suffering, and death, from which Marshall Pearl rises purely by the grace of God. Addressing the holy and the profane, but never heavy handedly, it is not so much a meditation on the fate of the Jews after the Holocaust, the rise of Israel, and the spirit of America, as it is an elegy and a song in which the powers of life and regeneration are shown to gorgeous effect.”
From the Reviews:
- “Mark Helprin, who must be legend to his friends, risks more than most novelists dare in ten years. Helprin writes like a saint, plots like a demon, and has an imagination that would be felonious in all but the larger democracies . . . . The sound that drowns all others in this novel is that of kingdom-come ignition.” (The Village Voice)
- “Marvelous . . . . A brilliantly sinuous tale that sets an Augie March-like young man into a Gabriel Garcia Marquez universe . . . There are so many things to admire in Mark Helprin’s first novel that one’s problem is where to begin.” (Joyce Carol Oates, The New York Times Book Review)
From the Novel: “You know,” said Al in a daze of hunger and cold, “when you see this, you realize that despite all the crap that goes on in the cities, despite all the words and accusations, the country has balance and momentum. The whole thing is symmetrical and beautiful; it works. The cities are like bulbs on a Christmas tree. They may bum, swell, and shatter, but the green stays green. Look at it,” he said, eyes fixed on the horizon, not unmoved by the motion of the train. “Look at it. It’s alive.”
There is a lot of magic in Helprin’s writing, though I believe he doesn’t care for the term “magical realism” and doesn’t see his work in that way. However, the fact that much of this novel is told in flashbacks dreamt by protagonist Matther Pearl, allows Helprin a lot of flexibility in his use of dazzling images and exuberant language. I’m glad I experienced the story again.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of two, magical realism “conjure and crime” novels, “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.”