It was a decade ago that I first ran across Mark Helprin. The novel was “Memoir From Antproof Case”, and the story of its nameless, coffee-hating protagonist grabbed me in a big way. Imagine a narrator who has been a murderer, a patient in an asylum, a WW2 ace, and a thief who rips off millions in gold bullion. That’s the way things are in Helprin’s universe – The adventures are big, bawdy and rotated a little bit off-kilter.
So here we are again with “Freddy and Fredericka”, his first novel in a decade. We know the title characters already – The Prince and Princess of Wales - He stiff, intellectual and hound-eared, she blond, beautiful and vacuous. Due to their penchant for embarrassing the Royal family, they are banished to America until Freddy can prove himself capable of assuming the throne.
The duo’s story is like “On The Road” filtered through Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and begins with them being dropped naked into New Jersey, and includes stealing art, fighting forest fires, working in a Medieval Times-themed restaurant, and in the novels’ inspired centerpiece, running the campaign of the foppish Presidential candidate Dewey Knott.
I laughed out loud at this novel. Often.
“Freddy had been to all the major places in America that were even vaguely like England. In favour of playing polo in Virginia or making a speech in Cambridge, he had skipped the West except as a place, in the late fifties, to kill large animals, and was unfamiliar with it other than by looking down from the Concorde on his way to Los Angeles or San Francisco. And these, as far as he was concerned, were cities with a tenous hold not only on America but upon the earth. The first time he had seen San Francisco he has come from the sea on Brittania and he had assumed he was hallucinating. He loved it, but he never stopped believing it was only a puff of ether. He had gone inland in California, once, to visit a walnut ranch, but apart from that had known nothing other than a strip of Pacific coast ten miles wide. Now they were in the West that neither he nor Fredericka had experienced except as a terra-cotta-coloured carpet so distant that it might have been the textured wall of one of the neopalaeolithic buildings Freddy so distained.”