There is some very pretty prose, and there are some very funny lines, but the story itself is a mess. The first section of the book is fine. It tells the story of Peter Lake, his partnership with Athansor the flying horse, and his love affair with Beverly. It's set in not quite real New York in 1913, and there are some strange goings on, especially when people who are supposed to be dead turn up alive. After that things get weird. Beverly dies, and then Peter Lake and Athansor are set upon by the minions of Peter Lake's arch-nemesis, Pearly Soames, and they die (apparently), as well.
The book jumps forward in time to the nineties. Hardesty Maratta starts a cross-country trip, and winds up in a wilderness Looney Tune with Jesse Honey (standing in for Daffy Duck) that is very funny, but does nothing at all to advance the story. Hardesty survives and winds up in New York. However, where Peter Lake's NYC is slightly different from the real thing, Hardesty's is a bizarre, Seuss-like place where no one knows how to make old machines work, probably because they are missing the proper framjamblers or somesuch. They even still have horses plowing fields and powering tools. Oh, and a complete moron runs one of the city's two major newspapers. The other paper is run by Beverly's brother, 100 years old and still pretty spry. The world building in Harry Potter is more logical.
Into this city drop Peter Lake and Athansor and Pearly Soames and his minions, and a bunch of other raised-from-the-dead time travellers. No explanation of how they all got there, except that some of them are trying to build a bridge to Heaven. They've been practicing over the years by putting up all sorts of wonderful bridges, the Manhattan and the Golden Gate, for two. They try to build their ultimate bridge and fail. Meanwhile, most of New York City burns, and the populace of the Brigadoon-like upstate town of Lake of the Coheeries is completely wiped out. Athansor forgets how to fly, then remembers again. Hardesty's young daughter dies, is buried, is dug up, and wakes up. Pearly Soames catches up with Peter Lake and kills him. The end.
No explanation about what the frell was going on is forthcoming. Who is Jackson Mead, and why does he want to get to Heaven? Is he Satan? Is he Bartleby from Dogma? Is Pearly Soames Satan? Is Peter Lake supposed to be Christ? Kee-Rist! What's the deal with Lake of the Coheeries? Why did it have to be destroyed? What was the point of it in the first place? How are people traveling from one time to another, and how are they being raised from the dead? And why would anyone raise the Shorttails from the dead.
Nothing gets answered. Helprin tells us in the epilogue to "Draw your own conclusions." All that tells me that he had no frelling clue how to tie this mess together, either.
The sad thing is, my copy of the book is damaged goods (missing a folio), so I can't sell the thing, or even give it away in good conscience. Sheesh.
This week I started Wicked. Now here's a book that makes sense.