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Mark Helprin
Freddy and Fredericka
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2005

Penguin Press / Penguin Putnam
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN: 1-594-20054-8
Publication Date: 07-07-2005
576 Pages; $27.95
Date Reviewed: 08-24-05

Index: General Fiction  Fantasy

The word fantasy covers wide range of literature and ideas. Typically, we think of fantasy literature in terms of J. R. R. Tolkien's 'The Lord of the Rings' and its many successors and imitators. If you're reading a fantasy, you're likely to encounter elves, dragons, wizards and whatnot in world that resembles Central Park without joggers and muggers. On the other hand, if you're living a fantasy, the implication is that you're living the life of the wealthy, surrounded by unimaginable luxury.

Living fantasy and reading fantasy meet in Mark Helprin's 'Freddy and Fredericka'. Helprin's tale reduces hapless Royals from riches to rags and sends them on a quest in an America that only Helprin can create with his detailed, vivid prose. His first novel in ten years, 'Freddy and Fredericka' finds Helprin discovering in the New World and Old something his readers are least likely to expect: a farcical sense of humor that infuses his journey with laughter.

Freddy is the Prince of Wales, an overly-earnest bumbler, prone to putting his foot in his mouth at inopportune moments. He even manages to be more of an embarrassment than Fredericka, whose plunging necklines are a delight to the press and a concern to the Queen. When their antics threaten the very existence of the monarchy, the quiet engines of antiquity fire up. In an entrance worthy of Gandalf, the menacing Mr Neil is brought in to send them on a journey that will either make them fit to carry on or enable them to disappear in obscurity.

From the beginning, Helprin establishes a feel for the fantastic and a silly sense of humor. The rolling hills of Scotland and the alleyways behind Buckingham Palace serve as perfect showcases for his compelling prose. The same language that evokes awesome landscapes bends easily enough to lend itself to a series of very funny, very British jokes. Helprin engages the reader and gets us to love his two foolish leads, even when one is covered in tar and feathers and wearing an empty fried chicken box as headgear. By involving us in the lives of Freddy and Fredericka, by making us care deeply for them and their fate, he opens a window with his language. He creates a fantasy reflecting both meanings of the word. Yes, Freddy and Fredericka are amazingly wealthy, and their lives are the objects of the world's attention, their antics the object of our fantasies. But everything is edged by the fantastic, seen through the prose lens of Mark Helprin.

Helprin keeps the magic well out of the spotlight in 'Freddy and Fredericka', but it is never entirely absent. Whether in the spectacular entrance of Mr Neil or in his evocative descriptions of the American landscape, Helprin's prose hot-wires the reader to an inner beauty that is ephemeral and ineffable. The America he describes is not exactly America as we know it. It's the America of John Bunyan, fast-forwarded into the 20th century with an eye for the absurd. Helprin lavishes a great deal of lovely writing on the mountains and the prairies, in passages that are poetic and powerful. Readers who enjoy landscape prose will find this novel particularly enjoyable, while those who might think they don’t enjoy such prose may find themselves learning to do so.

The real joy to be found here, however, is Helprin's sense of humor. He uses this to skewer the fantasy of the wealthy, as Freddy and Fredericka find that rags are far more comfortable than riches. Readers who enjoy the puns of Python and the verbal games of Lewis Carroll will find plenty to chew on here. Helprin unleashes a slew of homonymic humor, when, for example, the similarity between the name "Hussein" and the phrase "He's sane" leads those at a luncheon to conclude that Freddy is anything but.

For all the fantasy and all the humor, 'Freddy and Fredericka' is also a royal romance, as the oblivious husband and the self-absorbed wife are stripped of their riches. Helprin pulls this off with an astonishing ease because the contrast of his luxuriant prose and his almost adolescent humor gives his characters space to grow. As Freddy and Fredericka explore the new (to them) continent of America, they find the opportunity to explore one another. In the sturdiest of clich├ęs deployed with great grace, hardship offers them the opportunity to exhibit character traits that might have remained buried had they remained rich and comfortable. It's a bit corny, but Helprin smoothes over the thick edges with consistently gorgeous prose.

Helprin is one of those writers who likes to use elements of the fantastic but clearly doesn't want to wear them on his sleeve. The supernatural is never overtly exposed, but is often implied. Readers who demand that their fiction spotlight the supernatural will be annoyed, while those who prefer that such goings-on remain in the world of hints and implications will feel well-served. The truth is out there in the language, but it's not in the foreground. Don't expect front-page photos.

Helprin takes every opportunity to skewer so many richly deserving targets that readers might feel as if they're enjoying the reading equivalent of a summer barbecue. The greedy rich, the idiot politicians and the herded sheep of America provide him with lots of fodder. Helprin gets both British and American politics pretty much right, which is something of a rarity. When he's not making fun of a very specific target, Helprin takes aim at Freddy and Fredericka, relentlessly showering them with slapstick humor straight out of Abbot and Costello and the Three Stooges. It's not exactly what you expect to find in literature of this order, and it's mostly a welcome surprise. For how out of place it sounds, Helprin usually manages to make it seamless.

'Freddy & Fredericka' is not your usual anything novel. It incorporates elements of high fantasy, low humor, broad satire and touching romance within a whole that hangs together a lot better than it has any right to. Helprin's managed to weave together these disparate strands with nothing less than his usual polished, literary prose. Sublime, silly, and serious at heart, 'Freddy and Fredericka' is every bit as odd and as lovable as the title characters.

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