by Robert WeibezahlJuly, 2005
Mark Helprin's literary royal flush
Readers familiar with Mark Helprin's elegiac, transcendent novels and short stories may be surprised by Freddy and Fredericka. In his first novel in more than 10 years, Helprin has concocted a broad comedy about the British royals that is part P.G. Wodehouse and part Monty Python, with a little Abbott and Costello thrown in for good measure. If this sounds like a stretch for the author of such serious fiction as Winter's Tale and A Soldier of the Great War, it assuredly is. But the gifted Helprin for the most part pulls it off with panache, if not brevity.
It is hard not to laugh out loud at the antics of Freddy and Fredericka, barely disguised stand-ins for Charles and Diana. Freddy is a 19th-century man ill-fated to rule in the 21st. An odd combination of entitlement and befuddlement lands the Prince of Wales in many an awkward public situation, until finally Mummy the Queen puts him and Fredericka under virtual palace arrest. For her own part, the Princess Royal is empty-headed and fashion-conscious, but the English people, indeed the whole world, cannot help but adore her, much to the consternation of the punctilious Queen Philippa. When Freddy winds up naked, tarred and feathered and running for cover before the gaping tourists outside Buckingham Palace (you'll have to read the book to see how Helprin orchestrates this comic mise-en-scene), London's gutter press has a field day. Crown and country are not amused. If Freddy is someday going to be king, he and his consort must prove their worthiness, so a test is set forth by the strange Mr. Neil, who claims to have been alive during the reign of Arthur. Freddy and Fredericka must go to the United States and reacquire the Colonies. And they must do it by their wits alone.
All but naked, the Prince and Princess of Wales parachute into the industrial wasteland of New Jersey and their hilarious picaresque adventure begins. They steal a Harley from a fierce band of bikers and, aided by a group of Jamaican immigrants, don colorful island clothing and head south in the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile. In desperate need of money, they are conscripted by a self-proclaimed King of the Gypsies to steal a valuable work of contemporary art (which the tradition-bound Freddy deems appallingly lacking in worth), before ending up at the Salvation Army in Washington where, as Desi and Popeel Moffat of Alabama, they find work Freddy loading freight cars with car batteries and Fredericka cleaning lavatories in an office tower. It is this hard, honest employment and the simple life they encounter that sets them on the true road to redemption. Removed from the intrigues and temptations of the court (Camilla is portrayed as the sexually voracious Lady Boylingehotte), they also come to love each other. If the novel has a weakness, it is the gooey passages where the royal lovebirds express their newfound devotion, which let some air out of the satire and slow down the antic plot.
Helprin is an equal opportunity satirist, lampooning not only the British aristocracy, but an abundance of American institutions as well. For a book this broadly comic to succeed, though, we need to care about the characters; they cannot be stock buffoons. Here Helprin has better luck with Freddy than with Fredericka, who despite her enlightenment, remains a bit of an enigma. But in the end we do like her, and Freddy, too, and it's hard not to root for them even at their silliest. After all, even without the bespoke tailoring and well-coiffed hair, their fundamental nobility shines through and triumphs. At times lapsing into absurdity, Freddy and Fredericka may puzzle Helprin fans expecting something a bit more dignified. But beneath the pratfalls and who's on first comic exchanges, the book is propped up by the same notions of chance and human resilience that have distinguished his often fairytale-like fiction. One can't help wondering, though, what the House of Windsor will make of this book should a copy ever arrive at the palace.
Robert Weibezahl's first novel, The Wicked and the Dead, is reviewed in the July 2005 issue of BookPage.