A Huge, Risky Royal Farce Hums With Arthurian Reverb

article book jain A Huge, Risky Royal Farce Hums With Arthurian ReverbFreddy and Fredericka, by Mark Helprin. The Penguin Press, 553
pages, $27.95.

Where
do you go, after 58 years of life, when you’ve graduated from Harvard and
Oxford, written four critically adored novels and three story collections—not
to mention three children’s books—won the Prix de Rome, been called a literary
genius, become a respected political commentator, and single-handedly recharged
(at least temporarily), through your considerable oratorical skills, Bob Dole’s
flatlining Presidential campaign? To farce, it seems. The indelible,
overachieving Mark Helprin, having done just about everything else, has
produced, for his fifth novel, 573 pages of truly funny farce tucked around an
earnest treatise on man’s capacity for greatness. An epic quest narrative
heavily dosed with Monty Python–style silliness, Freddy and Fredericka is one
of the most delightfully odd and truly surprising novels to come around in a
long time.

The
title characters are the Prince and Princess of Wales, eccentric beings both
rotted, in very different ways, by a life of idleness. Fredericka is a pretty,
blond airhead whose life revolves around elaborate grooming rituals and posing
for magazine covers, a media darling whose idiotic pronouncements are eclipsed
by the dazzling sight of her cleavage. Freddy (repeated references to his large
ears, physical awkwardness and lack of interest in his wife make it clear he’s
a thinly disguised Prince Charles) is an honorable and serious fellow who takes
his family’s 1,000-year legacy seriously, but who’s also a social misfit whose
frequent gaffes have convinced the world that he’s insane. (Through a rather
convoluted misunderstanding born from Freddy’s royal accent, the public thinks
that he thinks he’s a Jewish Arab named Hussein. And looking for Fredericka’s
lost dog, named for her nutritionist—who died of malnutrition—has him running
around town screaming “Pha-Kew!”)

The
novel opens with the fourth of five attempts at a test to see if Freddy is fit
to be king: He must coax into flight the queen’s falcon, trained to take wing
only for those worthy of the throne. (In Mr. Helprin’s alternative history,
Edward VIII had to abdicate not because he fell in love with a married woman,
but because the royal falcon refused to fly for him.) Alas, the bird won’t
leave Freddy’s arm either, and the queen, desperate to prepare Freddy for his
last shot at flying the bird, has him and Fredericka, on the advice of an
ancient and magical advisor named Mr. Neil, dropped by parachute, naked and
penniless, into New Jersey. If they can recapture the colonies for the British,
Freddy will have earned the right to be king.

Freddy
and Fredericka—now with the alias identities of Alabaman dentists named Desi
and Popeel Moofoomooach—run into a motorcycle gang, hitch a ride with the
self-proclaimed King of the Gypsies, wash dishes and pound railway spikes in
Chicago, take a turn at dentistry in Nebraska, and live in a fire tower in
California—all before getting entangled in a Presidential election in which
Freddy writes grand, lofty speeches for Dewey Knott, a hapless G.O.P. candidate
who engages in a who’s-on-first routine with anyone who asks him a question
with the word “not” in it.

Mr.
Helprin is a clever writer, and this novel is filled with wicked little lines.
On Mr. Neil: “He was a Bohemian according to Freddy’s definition of such
people, which was that their hair seemed to be in pain.” And the Gypsy King
“was as buoyant as a natural politician or an empty bottle.” While the goofy
routines and plot twists are more often than not quite funny, these quick comic
riffs are what keep the writing alive.

Underneath
the travelogue of the couple’s vagabond adventures and the mocking portraits of
politicians and monarchs lies a meditation on leadership, public expectation
and what it means to have a birthright. (Call it the Arthurian theme: The
wizardly Mr. Neil is an anagram of Merlin.) “Why is a king,” Mr. Helprin asks,
“who by accident of birth must submit to the will and expectation of scores of
millions, or even (as in the case of the British, world-apparent monarchy)
thousands of millions, savagely held to account as he forges a tormented youth
into what must appear on Coronation Day to be a royal being of evident
perfection?” Freddy doesn’t want to be king, but he’s aware of his duty; he
solemnly declares, “I would die rather than betray continuity, for its own sake
if for nothing else.” Even as he spoofs the current tacky state of the British
royal family, Mr. Helprin holds them to ancient standards of strength and
righteousness.

For
the most part, Mr. Helprin deftly handles the switch between comedy and epic
drama, but there are long stretches of both that sink into boring repetition.
Silliness and studied gravity, in large proportions, are wearying, and Freddy
and Fredericka should have been cut by at least 100 pages. The sections on
American politics are the weakest: Though there’s some accuracy in the
portrayal of Presidential candidates as self-serving buffoons, Knott and the
incumbent President August Self are little more than vague caricatures. For
that matter, Freddy and Fredericka aren’t enduring characters; they’re
amusingly conceived vessels for Mr. Helprin’s big ideas.

It’s
hard to fault him for these moments of weakness. He’s taken a huge, risky stab
at something totally original, and the result is more interesting than a safe,
neatly polished novel. In Winter’s Tale (1983), Mr. Helprin wrote, “I’ve
imagined great victories, and I’ve imagined great races. The races are better.”
Freddy and Fredericka may not be a great victory, but it’s a thrilling race.

Priya
Jain, an editor at The Brooklyn Rail, has written about books and culture for
Salon, The New York Press and other publications.