Mark Helprin's not so normal life -- The author talks about his bestseller ''A Solider of the Great War'' and his struggle with OCD

A Soldier of the Great War

Mark Helprin has only recently taken to sleeping in the same bed with his wife, Lisa. Before that, the acclaimed novelist and all-around unusual guy spent his nights on the floor. Nothing personal about it: To Helprin’s supersensitive body, even the firmest commercial mattresses have the resiliency of goo.

A couple of months ago, however, the Helprins bought a mattress of the very hardest industrial foam. Mark thinks it’s too soft and Lisa finds it too hard, but at least they share it. ”I felt that after 12 years of marriage we should sleep in the same bed,” he says. ”It was time to be like everybody else.”

Fat chance. For Helprin to be like everybody else would require a complete personality overhaul. To start with, he’d have to quit being compulsively orderly: He’d have to stop strolling into his backyard and, instead of admiring the sweep of his vast lawn and the far-off shimmer of Washington’s Puget Sound, focusing on a fugitive scrap of paper so tiny as to be hardly detectable. And he’d have to stop being weird. For example, when left alone with an interviewer’s tape recorder, he couldn’t grunt into the microphone in a vaguely Asian language of his own invention. (He sustained this private patois, in a demonstration of genuine oddity, for several minutes.)

If Helprin were normal, he also wouldn’t place his postage stamps in trim little precut stacks, the 29-cent pile here, the 19-centers there, in a desk drawer that is as meticulously arranged as a still-life composition. He’d have to quit following his kids around, putting away their toys. Cease telling people that he’s a purveyor of industrial fluids. And stop walking into a perfectly clean kitchen and announcing, ”I call this a sty. Dirty dishes in the sink, dishwasher open, things crooked and rearranged — I gotta get out of here, otherwise I’m going to have a nervous breakdown.”

This behavior goes way back. When Helprin was a kid, he used to follow his parents around, picking up after them. ”Has Mark showed you the way he stacks cans of soup?” Lisa, a lawyer, inquires. You think at once of the film Sleeping With the Enemy, in which Julia Roberts is menaced by her compulsively neat husband. The Helprins haven’t seen it. ”Why see it?” Lisa asks. ”Why not live it?”

Helprin, a boyish 44, doesn’t even do things conventionally by the loose standards of his fellow novelists. His new best-seller, A Soldier of the Great War, describes the second decade of this century as it is experienced by a young Roman, Alessandro Giuliani. There are no American characters — indeed, the sprawling novel reads as if it has been translated into English from Italian. It is one of the most unlikely best-sellers since Helprin’s last novel, Winter’s Tale (1983), a fantasy of New York City that was extravagantly praised and occasionally denounced for its surfeit of imagination (a mechanical wizard, flying horses, a bridge made of light). But at least Helprin knows New York (where he grew up as the son of a minor movie mogul) and Italy (he has lived there and speaks the language) fairly well. His next novel, the first in an astonishing five-book, multimillion-dollar contract with Harcourt Brace Jovanovich that is the envy of every serious writer, is about Brazil, where Helprin has never set foot and has no intention of going. It will be better and fresher this way, he announces airily.

All Helprin’s fiction is written in the same manner. Standing in his expansive backyard, he demonstrates his method of composition by picking up an imaginary rock and flinging it. Since he was fit enough to make the Israeli army in the early ’70s — the consequence of a passionate attachment to Israel that took root in college — and works out in a gym in his house, it seems a pretty fair toss, even for an imaginary one. ”I take the last line,” he explains, ”and I throw it as far as I can. And then I walk to it. It’s as simple as that.”

The key passage at the end of A Soldier of the Great War is actually five sentences: ”To the sight of the swallows dying in mid air, Alessandro was finally able to add his own benediction. ‘Dear God, I beg of you only one thing. Let me join the ones I love. Carry me to them, unite me with them, let me see them, let me touch them.’ And then it all ran together, like a song.” A more conventional novelist would have larded this with irony, but Helprin plays it straight. Indeed it’s a rather benign sentiment coming from a writer known for the fierceness of his political convictions, especially one who is — gasp! — a Republican.

That’s the other Mark Helprin, the one who isn’t content writing fiction. This alter ego is a contributing editor of the Wall Street Journal. On February 26, a column in the Journal, entitled ”The One Great Lesson of the War,” appeared above his byline. In it, Helprin argued that ”the conventional defense of Europe is inadequate and that, therefore, the nuclear threshold is unacceptably low.” Strong stuff for this post-Cold War era, but Helprin is sensitive about discussing it, probably because he’d rather not be caricatured as a lunatic right-winger still fighting the Red Menace.

”I’m not scared of the Russians,” he says with a touch of exasperation. ”I’m not scared of anybody. I just want to make sure a balance is maintained so we won’t have to fight.”

If Helprin hung out with other literary types, most of whom tend to be as dovish and conciliatory in world affairs as they are hawkish and peremptory in their personal lives, his politics would be enough to keep him the odd man out. But the Helprins don’t hang out with anybody. During their five years in Seattle, he says, they’ve been to people’s homes for dinner twice — once to their senator’s, once to their congressman’s. Nor do many people visit them. And those who do don’t come back.

”We’re very bad cooks and hosts,” he says gleefully. ”We make people feel horrible.”

The food? ”Lisa once cooked a friend a dinner where everything was green.” That doesn’t sound so bad. ”It tasted awful,” he insists. Then there was the dish their guests nicknamed ”torture chicken.” They served this when they still lived in Brooklyn and were keeping kosher. ”So we used to buy this precooked kosher chicken that came smothered in barbecue sauce and wrapped in a very tight vinyl bodice. It was usually about 2,000 years old. It tasted like it was raw.”

Comprehension suddenly beckons; Helprin’s face glows with unexpected enlightenment. ”Maybe it was! You were supposed to cook it, and we didn’t. Because it was marinating with that barbecue sauce in that tight thing for so long, like a beach ball, we thought it was already cooked.” For a starch, they served Fritos.

Other reflections on socializing flow from these memories. He’s not crazy about parties. He claims he’s been to only two or three in his life. ”I don’t think it’s a phobia, I think it’s totally legitimate,” he says. While he was divorced — Lisa is his second wife — he wasn’t keen on dating, either. Both these situations, dates and parties, are too artificial for him. Mark Helprin’s Dating Tip No. 1: ”The best way to meet a woman is in an emergency situation. If you’re in a shipwreck, or you find yourself behind enemy lines, or in a flood.”

He met Lisa in 1978 in not quite such a calamitous style when she ordered his first novel, Refiner’s Fire, from a Manhattan bookstore he also patronized. When he discovered she lived right across the street from him, he decided to look her up. Lisa was actually reading the novel when he rang the bell. Since the closed-circuit TV was broken, she couldn’t see that her caller resembled the dust-jacket photo on the book; instead, she was convinced a berserko was spying on her and came down the stairs carrying a butcher knife behind her back. ”Sometimes,” she says, she regrets not using it. But on the whole, ”I can’t imagine not being married to Mark.”

In part, that must be because living with him is considerably more exciting than life with the typical novelist. ”Mark is a dreck magnet,” Lisa says. ”In New York, all the time in supermarkets deranged people were constantly throwing bottles of Coke at him. It has something to do with his electrical field, his aura.”

Obsessively neat, on his way to being A Major Writer for Our Time, politically conservative, an impulsive talker who hates parties, a dreck magnet — these things don’t quite add up. Not to Helprin, either. ”One of the things I worked very hard on all my life was to be like everyone else,” he says, startlingly. ”I tried very hard to fit in.

Perhaps in this vein, Helprin never gives anyone a straight response to the question ”What do you do?” Telling the truth can elicit the sentence every writer dreads: How come I’ve never heard of you? Helprin seems to dread it more than most. ”I always say, ‘I don’t know,’ because I don’t,” he says, but he prefers to avoid the whole issue. If he wants to impress someone, he’ll tell them he manages several high-productivity plants making industrial fluids, or that his uncle left him full responsibility for one of the most exclusive golf clubs in Palm Beach, or that he sits on several boards, including Weyerhaeuser and U.S. Plywood.

You get the feeling these lines are rarely used in real life. Still, they’re stockpiled in his brain for firing at a moment’s notice, so they play the same role in his personal life as U.S. forces abroad do in his political thinking: Only the strong survive; deterrents are needed everywhere.

A Soldier of the Great War
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