Amusing, long, 'Freddy' is royal test for the eyes

July 31, 2005|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Sun Staff

NOVEL

FREDDY AND FREDERICK

By Mark Helprin. Penguin Press. 553 pages.

Here's one thing that can be said right off the bat avout Mark Helprin's sprawling, picaresque new tale, Freddy and Fredericka: they sure didn't spare any trees in the making of this baby.

This is one really, really long book.

Five hundred fifty-three pages long, if you're into exact figures, giving it a heft that makes it, if not ideal for summer beach reading, ideal as a doorstop for the breezes that blow through a summer beach house.

It's also wildly ambitious, bitingly satirical and occasionally -- very occasionally -- laugh-out-loud funny.

Unfortunately, although it purports to be both a modern love story and a send-up of British and American society, the book too often descends to outright silliness, a silliness that, by comparison, makes a Monty Python skit look like Meet the Press.

The plot alone could cause a mental hernia: Freddy, the Prince of Wales, is a brilliant but fumbling heir to the throne who has become the favorite punching bag of the British tabloids for all the PR nightmares he's constantly involved in.

These include running after a small dog in public while shouting obscenities (see, the dog's name sounds like a very bad word and ... oh, never mind) and being photographed naked except for tar and feathers (see, he gets locked out of the Palace gates and ... OK, let's not get into that, either).

Fredericka is his gorgeous wife who dresses like a floozy and seems dumb as a rock, but nevertheless gets the kind of press once reserved for Winston Churchill and Mother Teresa.

In any event, after causing one too many embarrassing spectacles, Freddy and Frederic-ka are banished from the kingdom as part of some ancient tradition and sent -- stay with me here -- to America to conquer the land and prove themselves worthy of ascension to the throne.

The two are forced to make a nighttime parachute jump into the grimy industrial maw of New Jersey -- boy, when the Brits get ticked at you, they don't fool around.

And so begins a nomadic cross-country journey during which Freddy and Fredericka run from biker gangs, load trucks and clean toilets for the Salvation Army, hop freight trains, fight deadly forest fires, work as dentists and wind up smack in the middle of a presidential campaign, among other adventures.

In the picaresque tradition, they are changed dramatically by their ordeal as they discover the richness of this country and the innate energy and kindness of its people.

They also fall in love with the simplicity and freedom of their new lives -- no Fleet Street vultures stalking them, no staff members fawning over them, no stuffy monarchs and by-the-book politicians lecturing them about how to behave in public.

Finally, they also reconnect with each other, falling so deeply and passionately in love that pretty soon they can't keep their hands off each other, which causes them to consummate their desires alongside dusty railroad tracks, in freezing Chicago tenements, and everywhere else in-between.

I won't divulge whether they're successful in their quest to subjugate the former colonies -- if you slog that far into the book, you'll actually be rewarded with the most amusing segments, which center on a run for the White House by a gloriously incompetent Senate hack whose campaign is all but brain-dead before Freddy and Fredericka bring it back to life.

Mark Helprin is a brilliant wordsmith, but this comic fairytale is over-long and over-wrought, veering too often to the absurd and the inane to be consistently entertaining.

Kevin Cowherd is a columnist for The Sun.

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