Title:

Freddy and Fredericka

Author:

Mark Helprin

Category:

Fiction

Rating:

Date Reviewed:

January 30, 2006

Any book that can make me laugh out loud is a good book indeed. It's not that I am a grumpy person by nature, but genuine humor is difficult (how many times do you find yourself actually laughing at a sitcom?). Reading Freddy and Fredericka, I laughed quite a few times. This must be the silliest work that Helprin has ever written. Helprin, of course, is the author of Winter's Tale and A Soldier of the Great War, which are two classic novels. He is a master of wonderful prose, he can paint beautiful scenes in a paragraph - and in some of pages of Freddy and Fredericka, Helprin cranks up his writing skills and does just that - he will include a description of a landscape or an emotion that is breathtakingly good. What a writer!

But a novel has to be more than just tremendous good writing, it also must tell a story, and here Freddy and Fredericka fails to match Helprins incredible achievements of Winter's Tale and Soldier of the Great War. Freddy and Fredericka is the story of the Prince and Princess of Wales, they are thinnly disguised caricatures of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. In Helprin's version, Freddy and Fredericka are not the dolts that they seem to be to the rest of the world. Freddy and Fredericka are merely misunderstood. That is the source of the humor in this book - the jokes are along the line of the famous Abbott and Costello "Who's on First" routine. Freddy will say something, there will be a misunderstanding, and confusion results. That's clever.

Unfortunately, the longer this goes on, the less I like Freddy and Fredericka as characters. In the beginning of the novel, when we first meet Freddy, he does seem like a capital fellow who is trying to be king. But by the end of the novel, you see that much of the problems are caused by Freddy's complete inability to imagine what someone else might be thinking. For example, one of the jokes that doesn't work is Freddy searching for a lost dog named "Taxi". So he runs around shouting "Taxi! Taxi!" and naturally everyone scrambles to get the Prince of Wales a cab. Freddy can't figure out why everyone is trying to get him a car? He can't explain to anyone he is looking for a dog? Unfortunately, this joke is repeated with another lost dog (named after Fredericka's nutrionist who dies of malnutrition) named Fak Phu.

A completely lame plot device (an insane Merlin orders Freddy and Fredericka to America on a quest, and no one seems to care, or even remember that they were sent on this quest, so what was the point?) allows Helprin to take a tour of America, to see it through the foreigners eyes. Helprin hopes to look at much of American culture - but unfortunately there is much he does not like about the current state of the US, and so other than Freddy and Fredericka, not too many characters are displayed sympathetically. I had an especially difficult time reading about how Freddy and Fredericka, the Prince and Princess of Wales, labor at menial, back breaking jobs for poverty wages, and yet love their poor life - it is so much better than the burden of having everything handed to you, like when the were royalty. I have worked in kitchens, in restaurants and at the university - doing dishes is hot, messy, dirty and boring. It is a difficult job, and I am so thankful that I no longer have to toil in such drudgery, I sympathize with those who struggle to get by on minimum wage in such thankless low skill tasks. But Helprin wants us to believe in the nobility of labor, and so he offers us this unbelievable description of the good life of the working poor.

Freddy gets involved in the presidential campaign of Dewey Knott (lots of Do we or do we not jokes), who is a thinly disguised caricature of Bob Dole. (President Clinton is called President Self). In real life, Helprin was a speech writer for Dole, but apparently he didn't enjoy the experience, because the portrayal of Knott is not flattery. Funny yes, but he is an idiot. Ultimately, this is not a satisfying novel. The quest is pointless. Freddy and Fredericka are unbelievable and foolish. The plot is just a series of vignettes as Helprin takes his tour of America (but there are some wonderous descriptions of America's landscapes!) I rate this book 4 stars because I found it so funny, but if that is not your vein of humor, there is not much else to recommend. Read Soldier of the Great War or Winter's Tale instead.