Memoir From Antproof Case, by Mark Helprin.
Helprin's novel Memoir From Antproof Case was published in 1995, so why only now am I getting around to reviewing it? The most obvious reason of course is that I just now got around to reading it. I can remember buying the book many years ago, and it has like so many things in my life sat on a shelf while I threw myself into building cars and trucks for Toyota and General Motors at their NUMMI assembly plant. That's the GM that is now referred to as the old General Motors, the one that went bankrupt and abruptly left town, and the NUMMI about which nobody now speaks. I have more time now, and I've been catching up on some reading.
Another reason for the review is that, even though the book has been around for eighteen years and was written by Mark Helprin, you have to wonder how many people actually have read the book. Despite its pedigree and obvious quality, it was not a best seller. I realize that there is no actual single definition of "best seller." I would have thought that there was some significant number of book sales that was associated with being labeled a best seller. The music industry will actually certify a recording as a "gold record" if it sells 500,000 copies. No such standard exists for books. There are notable "best seller lists," like the one from The New York Times, but apparently each list's formula is a closely guarded secret. The designation as best seller could mean the book has sold 5,000 copies in a week, or it could mean it has sold 10,000 copies total. To be sure there are books that sell millions of copies, but not many. Interestingly, having a book sold does not mean that it gets read. One study placed coupons redeemable for $5 in cash in hot selling books, and not a single couple was ever returned. Memoir From Antproof Case does not appear on any of the lists I looked at, and so it would be totally safe to assume that no more than a million copies were sold and somewhat fewer were read. With a current world population of seven billion, that means that less than two one hundredths of one percent (.014%) of the world's population has read Memoir From Antproof Case. Odds are you haven't read this book, and you really should.
"I went free," the narrator of the novel (whose real name we never learn) says of his life. "I went free. I escaped. I contradicted laws, disappointed expectations, and defied balances." An old American at the end of his days living in exile in Brazil writes down the story of his life, placing the pages in an antproof case for safekeeping. It is a grand and improbable life, filled with murder and intrigue, war and wealth, love and passion, touching on four continents and filled with humor. Helprin skillfully scatters the moments of the narrator's life like so many puzzle pieces, and then bit by bit, fits them together to create a portrait of a man. From the innocence and idealism of a childhood on a farm in New York to aerial combat in the skies over Germany in WWII to the plotting of one of the great crimes of all time to life in hiding in Brazil, we are introduced to a man who passionately, sensuously embraces life (he is never far from and can rarely resist beautiful women or good food or the beauty of nature) and bends the reality of it to fit his own sense of honor.
"You hear a lot about the reasons for crime, how it comes from unrelieved suffering, and is in its greatest part a tragedy. But it is not so. Crime -- and I should know -- is first and foremost a phenomenon of opportunity. One commits a crime not to avenge oneself upon a world that has treated one cruelly, but, rather, for a sense of accomplishment, for the joy of getting something for nothing, for the thrill and the risk, for the freedom of exiting the social structure, and, most of all, I think, for the unparalleled and incomparable elation of escape.
If your crime involves great skill and meticulous planning, so much the better, but, as I believe I have said, crime is unpardonable and inexcusable if it wounds. The only decent crime is that which strikes against evil. Otherwise it is detestable. For example, robbing banks in Kansas hurts innocent people, whereas robbing banks in New York does not." - From Memoir From Antproof Case -
I used to think that John Updike was the best modern writer I had ever read, at least in his earlier work, not the Rabbit pellets he scattered about later. He had an ability to use words to create images so sharp that you remembered them as something you'd actually seen. However, I am now of the opinion that Mark Helprin is the best modern writer I have ever read. Part of that is that I like the way he thinks, but more importantly, I like the care that he takes to lead his reader into an experience. Take for example his description of why the main character decides not to seduce a woman in order to gain access to something she has:
" ... I was actually afraid that Miss Dickstein would be so intense in her amours that after our first encounter I would be reduced to the mysterious residue that announces where a bird has done battle with a cat. And so much for that." - From Memoir From Antproof Case -
That's an extraordinary choice of words. In this one short sentence, Helprin imparts a tremendous amount of information about Miss Dickstein and her abilities, about how the narrator sees her, and how the narrator sees his own strengths and weaknesses, and allows the reader a deep visceral connection to the narrator's state of mind.
I don't believe that I could find a bad paragraph in the entire book, but there are two chapters that are priceless. The first is "The Sky Over Europe" which recounts the narrator's time as a fighter pilot during WWII. Helprin's descriptions of flying and aerial combat are riveting. I don't know what his actual experience might be, and maybe he made it all up, but after having read this chapter I felt like I had been there, that I had flown a P-51, and that I too was shot down. In the chapter entitled "1914," the narrator talks about the events of June 1914 when he was nine years old. It is a time of innocence, filled with a young boy's observations of the mysteries of life, and of unspeakable tragedy. In this chapter, Helprin reveals the wound in the soul of the narrator that has so shaped his life.
"Sometimes I wonder what the purpose has been of all the years since 1914. I should have died then. I wanted to. I was nine years old when my time came, and I have lived ever since with immense sorrow. Death, for me, will be like the most comforting sleep." - From Memoir From Antproof Case -
If you do not read the rest of the book, read these two chapters.
Mark Helprin is an exceptional writer and a gifted story teller. Memoir From Antproof Case is a rollicking good time, a delicious treat. It is available both in electronic and hardcopy.