Helprin stories: subtle, shiny; Ellis Island and Other Stories, by Mark Helprin. New York: Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence. $10.95.
Collections of short fiction often have their high and low points, but in this book, the latest collection of stories by Mark Helprin, the artistry of the author shines through consistently.
At the same time, the stories are diverse. Helprin seems as comfortable writing about two children caught with their grandparents in a Vermont blizzard as he is writing about an English sea captain plying the Indian Ocean in 1909.
Although a story featuring Israeli soldiers is termed a "recollection in the present tense," it's obvious that most of Helprin's work depends on a robust imagination. The author, with a degree from Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, seems to take a special joy in concocting the situations in his stories.
This is especially evident in "Ellis Island," the novella that lends its name to the book.In the story, a Jewish immigrant hits New York City with a little money, an ivory pen, and an unsinkable nerve. He soon loses the money and comes close to giving up the pen -- but the nerve sustains him through to the end.
On another level, the story is about the immigrant spirit -- the drive that makes people leave that which is familiar to come to a new and strange country. Ellis Island, the processing point in New York's Upper Bay where millions of immigrants were screened, is depicted as a cold and thankless place -- which forced the newcomers to seek something better for themselves.
Helprin's character is able to cope, thanks to his sense of humor and vivid imagination.
For instance, while on Ellis Island, he is subjected to a series of examinations in which a very rotund man asks him if he can bend over. Before complying with the request, he silently muses "that the only reason he [the fat man] wanted to know was because he himself would never be able to do such a thing."
The shorter stories are, for the most part, more serious. In "The Schreuderspitze," a man, grieving over the loss of his family, travels to the Swiss Alps and plans a difficult mountain ascent.His dreams bring him to the top of the mountain and ultimately free him from the grip of grief.
"Letters from the Samantha" is the most unusual story in the collection. Written as a set of letters between a sea captain and his bosses back in England , it tells of an ape found floating on debris after a tornado rips across an island in the Indian Ocean. The captain departs from regulations in allowing the animal to come aboard ship, a decision he later regrets. The ape's presence onboard becomes a test of wills between the ape and the captain.
The letters don't read as smoothly as the other stories, since they are written in the more formal language of the era (1909). But even here, the author's style can be seen in the rich descriptions.
Whether dealing with the trials of a turn-of-the-century immigrant in New York or a would-be mountain climber in Switzerland, Mr. Helprin's writing is captivating. The author transports the reader into these different settings with the ease of a passing breeze.
This subtlety, combined with the decisive characters and carefully crafted detail in each of the 11 stories in the col lection, makes the book a solid piece of good reading.