- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 12, 2005

FREDDY AND FREDERICKA

By Mark Helprin

Penguin, $27.95, 553 pages

REVIEWED BY KELLY JANE TORRANCE

“Though it is hard to be a king, it is harder yet to become one,” opens Mark Helprin’s latest novel, “Freddy and Fredericka.” Commoners don’t know how good they have it. Freddy, Prince of Wales, isn’t quite king yet. But already the pressures of royal life have become too much for him. He longs to live a normal life — “walking through Chelsea in daylight, having tea in a hotel, sitting in a park while reading the paper, holding regular employment, being unnoticed, not bearing the weight of a thousand years of tradition, et cetera.” Where most observers see only the glittering surface of privilege, Mr. Helprin inventively imagines burden.

His wife Fredericka, on the other hand, revels in her role. The Princess of Wales has no higher ambition than to appear on more magazine covers than she already has. She measures success by the number of subjects who admire her. While her husband is thoughtful and contemplative, she is airy and willfully ignorant — she thinks Cervantes is a kind of dip. Between them, Freddy and Fredericka have put the monarchy’s future at risk. Freddy is a big-eared, bumbling boor who embarrasses the country when he’s overheard telling his mistress he wants to be her tampon. Fredericka’s beautiful breasts, always vulgarly on display, overshadow the queen.

Sound familiar? The two royals are, of course, thinly veiled versions of the real-life Prince Charles and Princess Diana. But their destinies, as imagined here, are vastly different. Mr. Helprin’s satirical farce at times has little connection to reality — character names like Lady Phoebe Boylingehotte contribute to the sense of the absurd. But it still manages to convey deep truths.

The protagonists may be more British than Earl Grey. But in “Freddy and Fredericka,” Mr. Helprin finally comes into his own as one of the great chroniclers of American life, as sharp as Tom Wolfe and almost as clever as Mark Twain. The royals are given one last chance to gain the throne. Parachuted, literally, into New Jersey, anonymous and practically naked, they can return only if they recolonize America, “the most savage, strange, and unconquerable region of the earth.”

The hefty novel follows the pair from one coast to the other as they find themselves enmeshed in scrape after scrape — stealing priceless art, cleaning toilets, straightjacketed in an insane asylum, working at a particularly brutal version of Medieval Times. Freddy’s fencing match with some very inebriated neo-Nazi bikers is particularly exciting. The reader enjoys some rollicking good fun watching the royals’ collisions with a diverse society they don’t understand.

Mr. Helprin understands it better. His experience as a speechwriter for Bob Dole, for example, flavors the time Freddy and Fredericka spend entwined in a presidential campaign. The author certainly has no love for Washington: Think-tankers, he says, have “learned to hybridize the blood-red internecine warfare of the federal bureaucracies with the baseless pomposity of academia.” These nasty asides give the book a hard edge. But they don’t blunt the novel’s main message of love. For “Freddy and Fredericka” is, at its heart, a love song to America, in all its crazy glory.

It’s not quite clear why the royals warm to the former colony so quickly. They enter it, after all, quite in the underclass. They have even managed to lose their front teeth, and there is no National Health Service here. One finds it hard to believe that Fredericka could happily trade her designer gowns for khakis her first day. Not to mention actually enjoy cleaning urinals. But only the most cold-hearted reader would not be moved by Mr. Helprin’s elegies to the land, water, and people that are found nowhere else.

To be sure, Mr. Helprin’s lyrical writing can run away from him at times. He is particularly fond of metaphors, one of the most difficult of tropes to carry off. He’s not always successful — as in “the stream beat against her breasts like the overture of a Wagnerian opera.” The prose can be a bit earnest at times. Characters are developed and then forgotten, or never developed at all. Its 550-plus pages contain many unnecessary tangents. But no matter. He manages to sweep the reader along by the sheer force of his commitment.

As Freddy and Fredericka shed the trappings of their rank and find happiness in the small pleasures of everyday life, the reader is drawn to those things, too. Hard work, study, healthy eating, exercise, the contemplation of art: These things seem so simple, but Mr. Helprin has a way of making them as irresistibly attractive as the Holy Grail. Freddy and Fredericka, without even realizing it, have created for themselves what the Greeks called the good life. Americans can choose to be whomever they’d like; but not all choices are equal.

Freddy considers his father’s ramshackle, hidden study the most beautiful room in Buckingham Palace. “That’s because it’s the simplest,” his father replies, “and because it’s imperfect, having been awkwardly fashioned not by carpenters but kings. It has the inimitable beauty of the simple, the good, and the true.”

The same might be said of Mr. Helprin’s achievement. Put simply, what Freddy and Fredericka learn during their sojourn is that in America, every man is a king. Nowhere else does man have such ability to shape his own destiny. The coddled aristocrats, for the first time in their lives, know real freedom. And in detailing the joy they find in creating, from scratch, a new existence, Mr. Helprin has given us a very high-minded how-to book for life. Like his previous ode to love, “A Solider of the Great War,” Mr. Helprin’s “Freddy and Fredericka” is sprawling, imperfect, but beautiful.

Kelly Jane Torrance is fiction editor of Doublethink, arts and culture editor of Brainwash and a book columnist for The American Enterprise Online.

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