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Helprin’s new novel shows off his skills

Helprin’s new novel shows off his skills

It was another ordinary day when I swung by the public library on my way to town. I picked out a couple of DVDs I needed — “Groundhog Day” and “Ghosts” — and then drifted along the “New Arrivals” bookshelves, browsing the authors and titles.

Just as I was about to head bookless for the check-out desk, I spotted Mark Helprin’s name among the crowd of fiction authors. I snatched up that treasure as if battling for it with a Black Friday shopping mob and carried it home, feeling all the while as if some tumblers of the universe had clicked into place and made the bright day magical.  

And here’s what made that enchantment even better. “The Oceans and the Stars: A Sea Story, a War Story, a Love Story” (Harry N. Abrams, 2023, 512 pages) now ranks right up there with my other two Helprin favorites, “A Soldier of the Great War” and “Freddy and Fredericka.” In fact, it’s been years since any work of fiction has brewed up such a storm of emotions in me. Here’s a book that brings smiles and tears, a sense of serenity countered at times by a deep rage, wonderment at the author’s release of a book so in tune with our embattled times, particularly in regard to the catastrophes in the Middle East, and amazement Helprin’s descriptive skills and knowledge of a dozen disparate subjects.

“The Oceans and the Stars” opens when Stephen Rensselaer, a highly decorated Navy captain on his way to becoming an admiral, dares to contradict the president of the United States over the nation’s need for a certain style of small warship. Rensselaer’s strong advocacy for such a class of ship sparks the president’s wrath, and he takes his revenge by assigning Rensselaer to the only such craft built like it so far, the “Athena,” Patrol Costal 15. For Rensselaer, assignment to this post amounts to a formal rebuke and an effective demotion in rank, barring him from the admiralty.

Rather than resign from the service, however, Rensselaer accepts command of the “Athena” and oversees its outfitting in New Orleans. There he meets Katy Farrar, a tax attorney, brilliant and beautiful, and like Rensselaer, divorced.

Farrar shares two others trait in common with Rensselaer. She too is a maverick of sorts, working now as an outlier for a firm several notches below her level of talent. Moreover, like Rensselaer, and though several of the men at the firm where she works pursue her, Farrar has given up on finding real and lasting love.

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Helprin’s description of these two meeting, dating, and tumbling into love is both believable and utterly charming.  Their affectionate loyalty to each other runs like a song through the rest of the story, even after Rensselaer and his small crew are ordered to sea, where they join in a conflict sparked by Iranian attacks on shipping.

Here the story shifts from romance to the sea and war. The “Athena” with its captain and crew, put together at the last minute in Norfolk and including a reduced contingent of six SEALs led by Lieutenant Commander Holworthy, set off on a solitary mission to pursue and engage a much more powerful vessel, the Iranian frigate “Sahand.” As Rensselaer and the men fight in several battles, including one against the “Sahand,” the “Athena” takes a beating. It remains seaworthy and capable of combat, but loses much of its communication with the outside world, leaving Rensselaer to make decisions on his own. The choices he makes will determine not only the survival of the ship and its crew, and the fate of some hostages they attempt to free, but will also affect Rensselaer’s reputation and career.

“The Oceans and the Stars” should appeal to a broad spectrum of readers. Those who enjoy reading about military tactics and weaponry, subjects present in the novels of Tom Clancy and Stephen Hunter, or stories of war and heroism will find these in abundance. Those who love the sea will discover poetic passages singing of its beauties and mysteries. Others wanting a strong female character will meet Katy Farrar.

Readers will likely note as well that Helprin’s novel is prescient in its depiction of terrorism. A group of Islamic jihadists seize control of a cruise ship, “L’Etoile Oceanique,” and begin murdering passengers one at a time while raping women, including schoolgirls, and beating and maiming others. These sickening attacks are vivid reminders of Oct. 7, 2023, when Hamas operatives entered Israel and indiscriminately killed scores of civilians — men, women, children, and babies — while raping others and taking them hostage.

My one quarrel with the book is Helprin’s somewhat idealistic view of the American military, particularly the Navy. The sailors perform their combat duties flawlessly most of the time, and all seem in peak physical condition, when in reality the Navy today is facing problems with obesity and weight among many of its personnel.

That detail aside, “The Oceans and the Stars” is by far one of the top novels I’ve read in over a decade.

(Jeff Minick reviews books and has written four of his own: two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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