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Novelist Helprin spins a good yarn in life and art

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Listening to novelist and political commentator Mark Helprin recount his life is a bit like listening to Forrest Gump - an eloquent, New York-born Forrest Gump.
/ Source: Reuters

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Listening to novelist and political commentator Mark Helprin recount his life is a bit like listening to Forrest Gump - an eloquent, New York-born Forrest Gump.

Helprin is hardly slow-witted, but like the titular hero of the Oscar-winning 1994 movie, he seems to have been everywhere and met everyone. The sweep of his own life story is similar to one of his many novels - broad, impressive, improbable.

Helprin's new book, "In Sunlight and In Shadow," released on Tuesday, is a high society romance, World War Two drama and mob thriller. It matches his previous novels in scope and length and carries on the author's fascination with old New York.

In person, as on the page, Helprin likes a good tale. He jovially boasts about his encounters with past presidents, war leaders and famous businessmen with the kind of confidence that, over a literary career spanning more than 40 years, he has typically donated to his fictional characters.

He dined with Richard Nixon, rode in a golf cart with George Bush Sr. and even met Winston Churchill.

"I've never ridden in a golf cart that hasn't been driven by a president of the United States," Helprin said during an interview this week, only half joking. That was in fact the only time he's ever ridden in a golf cart.

He recalled a night in the early 1960s when Nixon came over to his friend's parents' house for dinner, soon after Nixon's first failed race for the White House.

"I really liked him," Helprin said. "He seemed to be so approachable and humble."

A short man, with alert eyes and thick hair, Helprin is a youthful 65 and full of anecdotes. He enjoys making stark, surprising statements - "I have never drank coffee" or "I've never paid for a taxi" - but he mostly answers questions in long form, fitting for a writer whose novels span generations, countries and continents.

His storytelling prowess began aged seven and a major publisher was so impressed by his writing that he offered him a book contract. His father refused, Helprin said, wary of the trappings of childhood fame.

It was a minor stumbling block at the start of a long literary career. Helprin has won many awards and his stories were published in The New Yorker for nearly 25 years.

He is most famous for "Winter's Tale," his fantastical 1983 novel about New York at the dawn of the industrial age, which is being adapted for the big screen.

But he was thrown into the spotlight after penning Bob Dole's Senate retirement speech during his 1996 presidential bid. Helprin's words are credited with breathing life - if temporarily - into Dole's campaign. He remains a prominent columnist for The Wall Street Journal and other publications.


The New York-born writer recounted living in 43 different places, including California, England, Italy and Israel, where he served in the Israeli Air Force in the late 1970s.

But the twists and turns of his real life stories have sometimes drawn unwanted attention, most notably in a New York Times Magazine article in 1991, which questioned the veracity of some of Helprin's stories, including whether he completed a stint as a British merchant marine in 1967.

Deeply affected by the criticism, Helprin searched for proof to counter the claims and found his crew record in a warehouse in Newfoundland, which he published in the Paris Review.

Years on, and with more than a dozen works of fiction to his name, "In Sunlight and In Shadow," his sixth novel, has arrived. He called it a "love song to my family," borrowing a phrase from "A River Runs Through It" author Norman Maclean. The lead character is very loosely based on his father.

"I waited a long time to write this book; to get the tone right. The hatch is closing and I wanted to get it in before I died," Helprin said.

The 700-page novel is based in the New York of his youth - a purer, rougher city than today's incarnation. As a young man, Helprin never got in a cab, was repelled by the cost of the subway and preferred walking, absorbing the city's people and places.

"New York is not the city I remember, which is one reason why I wrote the book - to preserve the city I remember," he said.

He does not expect the same commercial success that "Winter's Tale" achieved, which he described as "freakish." Indeed, he isn't bothered by some early reviews that have been scathing and critical of his preoccupation with the ultra wealthy.

"You are expected to write a very spare, limited exploration of a single topic which shows that you know the world is bitter and awful, a sort of fashionable nihilism," Helprin said. "This book is not that."

(Reporting By Edward McAllister, editing by Christine Kearney and Andre Grenon)