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Freddy and Fredericka

by Mark Helprin

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating

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Freddy and Fredericka

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Mark Helprin (Winter's Tale) writes novels of great scope and beauty. He sends his characters off on epic quests in which, though faced with great odds, they triumph by tapping into that which is true and pure in human nature.

Freddy and Fredericka is just such a book. It is a modern day tale of the Prince of Wales and his princess, a royal couple known for their generosity with the media, each in their own manner. Prince Freddy, though he resembles no one so much as Alfred E. Newman, is nobody's fool. He is an erudite and honorable prince devoted unswervingly to the kingly ideal. Unfortunately, he often finds himself bumbling squarely into the embarrassing end of a misunderstanding, and the media is never far off when this happens.

In a particularly scandalous incident, Freddy is sent off in the night by his wife to chase down her dog, a pit bull with the unfortunate name of Pha-Kew (The dog was named after his former master, Fredericka's deceased Chinese nutritionist, who died of malnutrition). As usual, it is precisely when Freddy is chasing the dog through the British countryside yelling "Pha-Kew! Pha-Kew!" that he happens upon a wedding party and their concurrent video cameras.

Fredericka's contributions to the media are of a more appealing sort. It is with her golden tresses, sapphire-blue eyes, and unparalleled beauty, that Fredericka captures the nation, indeed the world. And perhaps England's Queen, Freddy's mother, wouldn't find this so disagreeable, if she didn't then hold the world rapt with her amply displayed cleavage.

So it happens that an ancient and little known tradition is invoked by the monarchy, and Freddy and Fredericka are sent off on a quest in which they must conquer a foreign and barbarous land. America.

The royal couple are ejected from England with assumed identities and not a farthing to their name. As dishwashers, forest-fire lookout personnel, art thieves and dentists, they hitch hike and hobo their way across the country that they believe they must conquer but that will ultimately conquer them.

Mark Helprin's descriptions are transcendent. He sprinkles these about his pages like wildflowers in an alpine meadow, and it is this deft sense of metaphor that makes his prose so wonderful to read and dwell upon, as in this passage:

All around the world, the surf breaks in a ring upon the ocean perimeter, never having been still since the beginning of time, and rolling out more steadily than all the looms of India, or those of Britain that once filled the Midlands with their incessant chatter. Were there a choir of everyone who has ever lived, its voice would hardly be as complex as that of the surf, which in its trillion-trillion-fold mass encompasses all frequencies , variations, and choreographies of water and foam. (p.322)

Helprin's flair for description is equally matched by a keen wit. I frequently found myself laughing aloud as I turned page after page of Freddy and Fredericka. This is largely an allegorical tale, and many characters are allegorically named: Lady Boylinghotte, Lord Cecil Psnake, Lord Alfie Didgeridoo (from Australia), Jus d'Orange ( a French military attaché), and the ever-indecisive Republican Presidential candidate, Dewey Knott, to name but a few. The entire novel, in fact, while classically romantic in its structure (the heros cast out of paradise and set upon an epic quest), is hilariously satirical in its portrayal of not only British and American heads of state, but of modern Western culture as a whole.

Were it only for his sense of humor and his ability to write page after page of wonderfully-turned prose, I would probably still read every one of Mark Helprin's 600 page (or more) tomes. But what really draws me to Helprin's novels is that he keeps his focus ever on the truth, and by that I mean human truth. He seeks out and satirizes that which is false, misguided, or merely pretentious in human behavior, stripping it away to reveal the truth and beauty that lies beneath.

And while Freddy and Fredericka is largely an hilariously absurd fairy-tale of life lived and loved in raw form across the cities, forests, highways, and prairies of America, Helprin manages, amidst all the fun, to tap into the truth. At the novel's end, we walk away nodding in agreement that a life without a little friction is hardly worth living, and that a little bit less is always a little bit more.

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