I bought this book over four years ago based purely on this review. I didn't actually get around to reading it till last week, when I decided that the movie preview looked intriguing, and that I should read the book before seeing the film. Having read the book, I definitely still plan on seeing the movie, if only to see how they turned this mess into a coherent, focused story line.
That isn't to say the novel is all bad; it's just it kind of meanders off into nothingness by the end. I also wonder if I may have had higher hopes or more patience for this book than I normally would have due to the movie preview. For example, after spending the first two hundred pages on one main character, the novel flashes forward into the future and deals with completely different characters and their adventures. While I wanted to get back to the other character(s), I was more than willing to go with the story and see where it was going - after all, based on the trailer, it was leading to something and was going to come together (see, patience).
And other books have done this as well - for example The Passage also moves its narrative forward in time and introduces a whole new cast of characters before finally tying its two story lines together. As a result, I was willing to be patient. I also like stories that go off on tangents and move in a leisurely manner if it makes for an enjoyable ride. Not everything has to have a point - I feel like I've said that exact same thing in another recent review. However, the character is barely reintroduced after more than three hundred pages of meandering, and even then, he barely seems to be the point of the story anymore. Basically, stuff happens but it doesn't really end up having much importance or impact. I will admit the language is descriptive but 700 pages of descriptive language with a bare bones plot is overwhelming, not magical. I wonder if I would have appreciated this novel more if I was more familiar with New York than just one weekend trip since the previous linked Pajiba review definitely seems to focus on that part of the novel.
Now the novel was a bit wordy even from the beginning, and I realize in retrospect that the author was a bit jumpy with the narrative. However, what works as a narrative device in the beginning of the story becomes very annoying a few hundred pages in. For example, after introducing a majestic white horse (probably the best character in the whole novel), the story jumps back a bit to explain Peter Lake's background, the man that the horse saved when he was being pursued by the Short Tails. It turns out Peter Lake used to be a part of that gang, but after making the boss, Pearly Soames, angry, he is their number 1 most wanted man. This made sense to me. A bit later, Peter meets Beverly, a young woman dying of tuberculosis, and falls in love with her. After a chapter where the two of them meet as he is robbing her house, the next chapter picks up at some later point, leaving the reader hanging for half the chapter about the relationship. As I said, these are things that work for creating tension in the beginning of the novel but I found this same jumpiness and unwillingness to give information to the readers very annoying later in the novel.
The novel is definitely not tied to reality and is this weird mix of fantasy/magical realism with other elements, so there is a magical fog that surrounds the city sometimes and disrupts timelines. After Peter Lake disappears into the fog, the reader knows that he will reappear at some point and isn't actually dead. It is at this point that the novel introduces the other whimsical characters, who themselves engage in random journeys. I'm still not sure why we needed the midget that Hardesty met - he literally had nothing to do with the rest of the novel in an already convoluted and packed story.
Once Peter finally makes his reappearance in the novel's present, Helprin ignores him for large parts of the narrative, focusing on the rivalry between two newspapers (one of them belonging to Beverly's family), and a bridge. Given the first two hundred pages (and the movie trailer), I was expecting a love story, but that's really not what this novel was. I'm still not entirely sure what it was. The horse was cool, though. And the first two hundred pages weren't bad. Even the first four hundred before it became clear that this wasn't really going anywhere.
The movie on the other hand has a fair shot of being better than the book since it could tighten the story, cut extraneous pieces and really show the city. Then again, it is a February release, so who knows.