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The Oceans and the Stars

A Sea Story, A War Story, A Love Story
by Mark Helprin

The Oceans and the Stars: A Sea Story, A War Story, A Love Story by Mark Helprin
The Overlook Press, 2023
493 pages

Reviewed by Michael F. Bishop

Every once in a long while, an American novel appears that restores one’s faith in modern literature.  More often than not, that work is by Mark Helprin.  His latest, The Oceans and the Stars, is an astonishing achievement, a rousing tale of heroism, sacrifice, and enduring love.  It is also eerily prescient, depicting a bloody war with Iran and the brutal treatment of women and children at the hands of Islamic extremists.

The hero is Stephen Rensselaer, a career naval officer whom we find in a brief introduction facing the thirteen grim-faced admirals about to announce his fate after a court martial.

But before we hear the verdict, the story races back several months to its proper beginning, when the divorced Captain Rensselaer—a Harvard PhD and former SEAL–is serving on the staff of the secretary of the Navy and living in an elegant apartment in Georgetown.  He accompanies the secretary to the White House for a meeting with the president, who wishes to scrap the Navy’s line of Patrol Coastal Ships (PCs).  Crude and ignorant, the unnamed fictitious president displays all the worst qualities of the incumbent and his immediate predecessors.  Rensselaer makes the mistake of arguing with the vindictive commander in chief and is consequently assigned to the last of the PCs, the Athena, a demotion that he takes in good grace.

As well he might, for as he works to prepare the new vessel in its New Orleans berth, he meets the exquisite Katy, a brilliant and beautiful lawyer whom he eventually works up the courage to approach.  Both in midlife, with failed marriages behind them, they find in each other the perfect partner.  Katy’s love will sustain Stephen through the terrible trials ahead, when all else seems lost.

The Athena is launched as the United States is at war with Iran and is initially ordered to sail to the Persian Gulf.  The ship is small but heavily armed, its bristling weapons as lovingly described as in a novel by Tom Clancy, if Clancy could write like an angel.  In addition to her regular crew, she carries a SEAL team eager to take the fight to the enemy.

But a sailor’s life is about more than just combat, and Helprin beautifully conjures the aesthetic pleasures of life aboard ship, as when he describes the stunning colors of sea and sky:

“In a band conforming to the horizon, the sea was the darkest blue it could be before turning black.  Closer in was a layer of sea much lighter in color—navy blue—and the chop, with, however, nary a visible whitecap, made it look like crêpe.  Immediately above the horizon was a belt of glowing gold leaf, uneven at the top where falling rain–some of which reached the sea and some of which did not—painted the sky in a kind of semi-charcoal.  And above this were successive layers of darker and darker blue until the topmost layer of heavy cloud somehow whitened.  All in all there were eight bands of luminescent colors in a tranquilizing scene enlivened by the gold leaf horizon.”

The sight reminds the ever-romantic Rensselaer of “a dress worn by one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen, at the embassy in Paris.”  To his second in command, the scene calls to mind the paintings of Rothko.  But as if to ground this rumination on beauty in naval reality, the head of the SEAL team asks, “What’s a Rothko?”

Soon more immediate concerns arise.  Stephen receives orders to head not to the Gulf, but to the Indian Ocean, where a much larger Iranian vessel is lurking.  It appears the Athena is to be sacrificed as the Navy’s more important ships are deployed elsewhere.   

Again disappointed, Stephen nevertheless does his duty and sails where he is bidden.  The SEALs are furious as they fear their unique combat abilities will be wasted on such a mission.  But their concerns are misplaced, as the little ship Athena traverses the Mediterranean, enters the Suez Canal, and approaches the coast of Africa.  Along the way, the men of the Athena engage in no fewer than seven battles, on sea and on land, taking on not only the Iranians but also bloodthirsty Somali pirates.  The battle scenes are thrilling, unsparing, and emotionally engaging, as Helprin deftly gives life to his characters and makes the reader care deeply about their fate.

Near the end of his dangerous and bloody voyage, Stephen is confronted with a difficult moral quandary: whether to obey the orders of his superiors—originating directly from the feckless president of the United States—or attempt to save the lives of innocents.  His choice will have profound and terrible consequences that will keep the reader breathless until the final page.

Helprin, author of the modern classic A Soldier of the Great War plus several other excellent works, including In Sunlight and in Shadow, and Paris in the Present Tense, is one of the finest novelists writing today.  In addition to his literary endeavors, he is a prolific commentator on defense and foreign affairs, and his expertise shows on every page of this gripping naval adventure.

The New York Times review of his 1983 romantic fantasy Winter’s Tale began with the remarkable admission, “I find myself nervous, to a degree I don’t recall in my past as a reviewer, about failing the work, inadequately displaying its brilliance.”  I feel the same about The Oceans and the Stars, which is as impossible to put down as any thriller.  Filled with profound reflections on love, loss, and leadership; and written in lush, lyrical prose of extraordinary beauty and power, Helprin’s tribute to the United States Navy is a patriotic and literary triumph.

Michael F. Bishop is a writer and historian, and the former executive director of the International Churchill Society and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

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