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Refiner's Fire Paperback – October 20, 1990

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Harcourt/Mariner Books; 1st Harvest/HBJ ed edition (October 20, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0156762404
  • ISBN-13: 978-0156762403
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,780,992 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

About the Author

MARK HELPRIN is the acclaimed author of Winter's Tale, A Soldier of the Great War, Freddy and Fredericka, The Pacific, Ellis Island, Memoir from Antproof Case, and numerous other works. His novels are read around the world, translated into over twenty languages.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

RIDING IN a new 1938 Ford through the March countryside of North Carolina, Paul Levy was astonished by the tranquillity and depth of the blue above. Every tree and field was sheathed in gentle, clear, warm light. Smoke from clearing fires rose straight and slow, and the speed and air were perfect as the car wound through the back roads, sounding like a perpetual chain of little firecrackers. He was sixteen, the son of a Norfolk ship provisioner, and in love with the Navy and its ships. His father saw them as delivery points for canned tomatoes and brass polish, but his father's son was struck as if by lightning at the sight of one steaming up the roads, bent forward, pressing on-a squinting bridge, high black masts and angled guns, smoke, wake, urgency, and water pulsing off the bows. And when they turned, with claxons and bells, and the stern seeming to sweep like a skater over mottled ice, he saw in them the history for which his tranquil boyhood had been created. And in the North Carolina countryside, joyriding in his father's car solo for the first time, he could not help glancing through the windows at the sky and thinking of the sea.

By darkness when he returned to Norfolk he had decided to join the Navy, which, after a year or so of arguments and heated wanderings in and out of the dance places at Virginia Beach, he did. At first he went to sea as almost a child, and the little experience he had he used badly, awkwardly, making more mistakes than he could count. But at nineteen he was an ensign in the Battle of the Atlantic. He used to come home every few months or weeks, and each time he was more solid, stronger, wiser. Being on the sea was miserable, especially in winter, and it wore him down. But it developed into his calling and during the war he had been off Africa, Normandy, and Japan. Because he learned fast and loved the sea he became a lieutenant-commander by the end of 1946, taking a year's leave of absence to rest and prepare: he intended upon a career in the Navy, but did not want to be entirely brought up in it. He thought that a year of peace-maybe some farming, a trip across the country to San Francisco, a month at home-would do it. His father had become prosperous, especially since the fleet had not been decimated and would not be dismantled as had been the custom after other wars. They lived in a big house and it was planned that the younger sister and brother would go to college.

Paul, though, was lost to the Navy; he was an officer with Southern ways and a fighting man's demeanor. They were proud of him, but having left early and against their wishes, he was not very much like them. He had forgotten his Jewishness, almost lost it in the rush and conviviality of war. No one knew he was a Jew if they didn't know his name. Even when he said his name, everyone did not immediately know his origins, since he pronounced Levy like the tax, or the embankment which holds back a river. He was by appearance and dialect a Virginia or North Carolina farmer-and this delighted him. He was free as his father had never been to blend into the country and be whatever he wished, except for his name and except for his regret, as he saw his father growing older, that he as first son would do little in continuing what began to appear to him in the quiet spring days of his extended leave, riding again in the Carolinas, as a very important line of passage, a crucial tradition.

It took him a day to go from the balm of the internal Carolina lakes and bays to Washington Square. New York seemed to him like rows of gray teeth and he could not understand how people chose to live inside files of concrete boxes in a city which was really not a city but a machine. To him it seemed about the same as building a great engine, a thousand times greater than the Corliss Engine, and then living inside. London too had gray teeth, but in circles and enflowered by trees and promenades. This city on the Hudson was like a shark's jaw-monotonous serrations thick and hard.

He had intended to seek out Jews, for the ones in Norfolk were in his eyes predictable and Virginianized. But to his great surprise, the Jews in New York would have nothing whatsoever to do with him. First, his approach was confused. He walked into restaurants and ordered familiar dishes. In this way he ate much and discovered that one does not retrieve receding history through gastronomy. He sat next to an old man and looked into his face, about to ask a momentous Jewish question, when the man said, "Go avay, cowboy." He explained that his name was Paul Levy, but when the old man heard the way he spoke, he fled. Paul kept on trying.

He chose a synagogue and went to pray, but when he entered they looked at him as if he were a raccoon or a possum who had wandered in from the Louisiana Bayou. He went to see a rabbi, whose advice consisted of coldly instructing him to purify his pots and pans by boiling water in them and dropping in a hot brick. "A hot brick?" asked Paul in disbelief. "Let me get this straight. You want me to boil water in my nonexistent pots and pans, and then drop in a hot brick? A hot brick! Rabbi, one of us is nuts, and it's not me."

After a week or more of seeking out Jews in New York he found himself at the house of a Roman Catholic law professor, lying on the floor of the library, which looked out on a cold Washington Square where snow was falling for the last time that spring, and next to the sooty buildings it telescoped itself into a salt-and-pepper image like the tweeds in the livingroom downstairs at the party. But the snow was twisting in cold whirlwinds like the warm viscous air above the fire. He was roundly, rotatingly drunk, davening in his drunkenness before the fire, and next to him was a Palestinian Jewess whom he had beguiled upstairs to kiss; but she wasn't drunk at all. She liked him though and had never heard a Jew who talked as he did. When he told her he was a Navy captain (he blushed at the lie) she leaned over on the Persian rug and kissed him on his mouth in such a wet sexual way and with such great affection that he said, "Would you believe that I'm really an admiral?"

"No, I don't believe you," she answered. "But I want you to tell me about that you are a captain."

And he did, starting with his revelation in Carolina about the Navy and the sea, his love for the sea, how in the war he had fought and endured, how his father had not known him but had seen instead a tough stranger who did pushups and could fight, and how for him being a Jew was impossible since he could not get either in or out and seemed to be hanging in between worlds which would not have him.

They stayed together for two weeks until she took him in a turtle-backed taxi to Idlewild and saw him off on his way to becoming a captain, as he had said he was. He felt that he did not know his own mind. He was apprehensive about not returning in time to resume his commission, apprehensive about leaving the silent city which he had come to like and respect, apprehensive about rising above shafts of sunlight and clouds on a straining airplane past the rows of gray buildings in new prosperity-a good quiet place for infants after the war-apprehensive of rising into an empyrean of blue, apprehensive of heading east, apprehensive of challenging the British cordon with an old coastal freighter, and apprehensive of the dreamlike frame of mind into which he had fallen. He hardly knew what had happened, but he felt as if he were certainly rising upward.

Copyright © 1977 by Mark Helprin

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval
system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc.,
6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

More About the Author

Educated at Harvard, Princeton, and Oxford, MARK HELPRIN served in the Israeli army, Israeli Air Force, and British Merchant Navy. He is the author of, among other titles, A Dove of the East and Other Stories, Refiner's Fire, Winter's Tale, and A Soldier of the Great War. He lives in Virginia.

Customer Reviews

A book worthy of several reads.
There is no growth, no change, not even the most rudimentary kind of development open to this character.
Sylvia Weiser Wendel
Read the book, page by page, and let the story carry you away.
Randy Krieger

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

45 of 51 people found the following review helpful By J. Guberman on December 23, 2000
Format: Paperback
This is the best Fiction I have read in English since I read the translation of Milan Kundera's "Unbearable Lightness of Being". The beauty of the language is such that it would not be surprising if one required grief counseling after completing this book. The experience and beauty gained in the reading, is mourned soon after you have turned the last page and a feeling of loss descends upon you. Though the book is not sad. Completing it is. It is alive with the joy of lively and interesting characters who take you with them in their dreams and hopes for the future. It is only this that one loses by turning the last page. Intellectually a stimulating story and linguistically one of the best examples of how English should be written with an appreciation of the natural poetic imagery of the language.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By D. Hodges on August 1, 2009
Format: Paperback
Mark Helprin's "Refiner's Fire" is one of the most original fictional books I have ever read. Written in a whimsical, almost magical, style, the book begins with the main character, Marshall Pearl, ailing in a Haifa Hospital, gravely wounded from an artillery shell fired near Mount Hermon in the opening salvo of the Yom Kippur War. From there, the book tells the story of his life, from being born an orphan on a refugee ship in Palestine to fighting Rastas in Jamaica and searching for the story of his father amidst the frozen crevices of Mount Chamonix.

While adventuring through the world, Marshall goes through tests small and large, each of which will help make him into a man. Although the reader begins the book knowing that there will be some point at which Marshall goes through the refiner's fire, Helprin makes the story up to that moment both full and complex. Rather than just letting the big events do the shaping, Helprin shows how a person like Marshall, naturally brave and independent, can be tested in all sorts of ways, knowingly and unknowingly, and then draw upon the results of those tests for when it really counts.

The book demands the attention of the reader and, if it is given, the reader is rewarded with a lovely, intricate tale replete with beautiful language and thoughtful observations. For instance, while in the hills of the West Bank, Helprin observes that, "It was easy to die near Jerusalem, as easy as falling in the undertow of a history which surged in tides and currents and was unknown, but left its marks like wind eroding the rock. All things conspired there on a high part of the stage upon which they had come at their risk.
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19 of 23 people found the following review helpful By archer on October 16, 2001
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I started life reading all of the works of William Faulkner -- The best American writer of the 20th Century. Richard Powers is obviously a genius and a great writer. Don Dillio, John Irving, and especially Wallace Stegner are all great writers. But Mark Helprin is a true genius with language. After reading four of Mark Helprin's books, he comes closest to the magic writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, except I end up caring a gread deal more about his characters. "Winter's Tale" is remarkable. Just the language in "A Soldier of the Great War"; and "Memoir from Antproof Case" are worth reading. The brillance of the later works are evident in "Refiner's Fire".
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13 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Randy Krieger on August 19, 1997
Format: Paperback
If you do, you will deprive yourself of one of the joy's of reading this book. While endings typically conclude, surprise, or leave questions, Refiner's Fire does so much more: It affirms life. Read the book, page by page, and let the story carry you away. Then, as the pages remaining become thinner and thinner you will race to finish -- but you must not. Allow it to unfold and experience one of the most joyful and moving books ever. Just terrific
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15 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Burt on May 2, 1999
Format: Paperback
Having read "Soldier of the Great War", I was disappointed in this novel. "Soldier" was superb! I found myself suspecting that this was an earlier work, perhaps his first novel (which it is). It is broad in scope and bold in vision, but too often the use of language is pretentious and obscure. There is some excellent writing, which previews what is to come in "Soldier". But "Refiner's Fire" lacks the control and the consistent elegance that I had expected and which one finds in his later work. This book is an interesting read for one who enjoys observing the development and maturation of a great writer.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 23, 1999
Format: Paperback
A wonderful novel, typical of the author, that sprawls across the last century from Czarist Russia to the founding of Israel to the Hudson Valley to Rastafrian Jamaica...and so on. The story, while bordering on the absurd at times, will keep you cemented to your reading chair, and the ending is perfect, a complete validation of the novel's central premise: life is beautiful.
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13 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Alun on May 7, 1999
Format: Paperback
I'm sorry for the guy disappointed by the book. I must have gone through six or seven copies of RF in my 20/30s - a good book to give to friends and, as some of the other part-time critics here have written, a very life affirming book.
It seems to combine the best of the wonderful chaotic rush that life in adolescence can give you, when you're doing everything for the first of times; with the other pleasures - of age, now - of looking back on the past and realising personal time then is now becoming part of history.
Helprin catches that cusp dead on, naturally without pretentious artifice.
I'm a Brit, Welsh by background, and RF has an age-spanning resonance for me with 'Oh Lucky Man', a film made in 1974, directed by Lindsay Anderson, a 'new realism' Brit, socialist/surrealist theatre director. He's also famous for 'This Sporting Life' and 'If' - which is about English public schoolboys rebelling (I've just remembered the recent US school massacre and made the connection)and taking the guns from the school OTC armoury and attacking the parents and teachers as they come out from a memorial ceremony.
That was made in 1970, so I don't think the lawyers can class it as an influential video nasty.
'Oh Lucky Man' is a modern equivalent of a Mystery Play. Young Man is tempted, learns, becomes wiser in different ways, and then is plucked from the crowd to star in 'Oh Lucky Man'.
A similar focus on the intensity of experience of life with Helprin, but of 'American' as both immigrant and explorer - but a stranger always in his adopted lands - the subtitle of the book is, I seem to remember: Marshall Pearl, The Adventures of a Foudling.
Which, when you think about it, is actually a fairly Dickensian/middle Victorian sort of subtitle ?
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