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The Sort of Men We Need

The Sort of Men We Need

A new book by Mark Helprin is like a surprise gift from St. Nick, so when I spotted The Oceans and the Stars: A Sea Story, a War Story, a Love Story on the “New Book” shelf of my public library, I snagged that gift, headed for the checkout desk, and opened it as soon as I arrived home.

This novel ranks right up there with two other Helprin favorites of mine, A Soldier of the Great War and Freddy and Fredericka. The plot takes us from the corridors of power in Washington and the steamy sidewalks of New Orleans across the Atlantic aboard the patrol coastal ship Athena to the Middle East, where the United States and other countries have become embroiled in a war with Iran. Along with the Athena’s crew, which includes a contingent of Navy SEALs, and its skipper, Captain Stephen Rensselaer, readers go through several battles on sea and on land. The Athena successfully engages the larger and more heavily armed Iranian frigate Sahand and then launches a rescue mission of hostages being systematically raped and murdered by terrorists.

But before sailing off to war, Rensselaer falls deeply in love with tax attorney Katy Farrar. Both are older, both divorced, and both believe their days of finding real love are over until circumstances bring them together in New Orleans. As he has done in several other books, Helprin beautifully and poetically develops this romance that changes their lives.

Rather than dwell on the plot, however, let’s consider instead the character of Stephen Rensselaer. We often hear these days about the death of manhood and toxic masculinity and the struggles of boys to become men. Stephen Rensselaer may be fictional, but through him, Helprin shows us a composite of the virtues that make up a good man.

As a leader, for instance, Rensselaer maintains the perfect distance from his crew. Though they know they can approach him for help and advice, he does not pretend to be their buddy. Nor is he aloof or self-absorbed. Rensselaer is all about the mission at hand, preserving the lives of those under his command, and winning in battle.

At one point, when Rensselaer discovers that some of the men are watching pornography, he visits their quarters, where they spring shamefacedly to attention. He offers no reprimand, nor does he make any apology for his presence. Instead, he simply reminds them that the women they are watching are daughters, sisters, and mothers, just like those the sailors have left at home, and then gently warns of the corrosive effects on the spirit of such “entertainment.” It’s a small incident in the book but provides a supreme example of deft leadership.

In addition, Rensselaer has made every effort to improve his work and himself. He’s a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and holds a doctorate from Harvard, but perhaps more importantly, his reading and his appreciation for beauty, both in the arts and in nature, particularly in regard to the sea, add their own riches to his sensibilities and his store of wisdom.

Rensselaer also does battle for causes he deems worthy, no matter the cost. In a meeting with the president of the United States and other top officials, he strongly defends keeping in service the Navy’s smallest ships, the patrol coastals like the Athena, which the president wants to retire from service. Offended by Rensselaer’s strong arguments, and as an act of vengeance and punishment, the president orders the Secretary of the Navy to assign the captain to the Athena, a demotion in status that the president hopes will force Rensselaer to resign. Instead, Rensselaer accepts the post, saves the lives of some of his crew and some civilians, and wins victories and honors for the Navy in the war.

Rensselaer’s new love, Katy Farrar, who is herself a maverick spirit, loves all of these qualities in him. Through her eyes, we gain some sense of the qualities in a man that would please any number of women these days. At one point, Helprin reveals Katy’s thoughts about their still-new relationship: “It was strange, but she felt that both he and she would have been essentially the same had they lived in any era of history, never quite fitting in if only because they were quietly adamantine in regard to what was beautiful, right, and true. … It bound them together more than they had been bound to anyone else in all their lives.”

In his other novels, like A Soldier of the Great War and Paris in the Present Tense, Helprin also presents us with older men as protagonists—heroes is the old-fashioned word—who display these same virtues, once commonly accepted as the marks of a good man. In all these characters, we find that the basis of this manliness is acquired through learning, experience, and ongoing personal reflection on both.

In his article “Where Have All the Good Men Gone?” W. Bradford Wilcox of the Institute for Family Studies and associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia writes: “It’s a recurring lament we hear from women at the University of Virginia: Where are the good guys? The guys interested in commitment, and the guys who have drive, ambition, and purpose?”

They’re in the pages of the novels of Mark Helprin. We just need more of them in real life.

Image credit: Unsplash

Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick

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  • Avatar
    Mark Tapson
    February 20, 2024, 12:32 pm

    Thanks for alerting me to this, Jeff, and for highlighting the aspect of the protagonist's masculine virtues. I'll definitely check out this book.

  • Avatar
    February 22, 2024, 12:06 am

    Where are the good guys? It’s a wonder we have any left, the way our culture has demonized masculinity. It seems diabolical to me—part of the effort to destroy the family.

  • Avatar
    Robin Wild
    February 24, 2024, 7:00 am

    I opened this article from a daily news feed I receive.
    It was nice to see your name. Hope you are doing well Jeff.

  • Avatar
    February 24, 2024, 2:42 pm

    I loved this book and have been recommending it to everyone.
    What an amazing author, years ago I read "Winters Tale" and was taken away with awe.

    • Avatar
      Jan Gary Grimm@Jenifer
      February 25, 2024, 12:02 pm

      me, too Jenifer. a stunning work from start to finish.

  • Avatar
    Jan Gary Grimm
    February 25, 2024, 12:00 pm

    Thank you. I just ordered this book. I read 'Winters Tale' about 7 years ago. An amazing, captivating work of modern literature.


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