by Pete Hamill
Published by Little Brown & Company
613 pages, 2003
The Never-ending Story
Reviewed by David Abrams
Pete Hamill knows New York. As editor of both the New York Post and the New York Daily News and frequent contributor to the New York Times and The New Yorker, there's little doubt his passion for and knowledge of the city and its people runs deep. Cut his veins, he probably bleeds apple juice.
In his latest novel, Forever, Hamill takes that love and understanding and wraps NYC in a big, smothery embrace. Emphasis on the smothering part.
Forever is ambitious -- and frequently unsuccessful -- as it tries to chart a huge chunk of Gotham history in 600 tedious pages.
The novel is essentially a time-travel fantasy where instead of going back in time, the central character comes forward, living each day of American history from pre-Revolutionary War to September 11. We first meet Cormac O'Connor as a five-year-old living in 18th-century Ireland. He's called Robert Carson because his family has tried to keep its Celtic beliefs hidden from Protestant persecutors roaming the land -- embodied in the cruel character of the Earl of Warren. Cormac adopts his real name after his parents are killed by the earl and he vows to seek revenge. Before he died, Cormac's father told him, "In our tribe, the murderer must be pursued to the ends of the earth. And his male children, too." And so, Cormac follows Warren to the American colonies, chasing him through the dirt streets of New York (then little more than a colony of Dutch farmers).
On the passage to America, Cormac befriended some of the African slaves; that friendship is later rewarded when a shaman gives Cormac the "gift" of eternal life so that he can wreak his revenge on future generations of Warrens. One stipulation: Cormac cannot set foot off Manhattan Island (or, I imagine, he'll turn into a pillar of salt).
The book requires readers to check their disbelief at the front door. If you cannot accept the fact that a little voodoo can give a 20-something Irish lad unblemished eternal life -- sort of like a centuries-old Dick Clark -- then you won't be able to squeeze even the smallest pleasure from this novel.
As might be expected of someone who has a couple hundred years to spare, Cormac drifts between a variety of professions: printer's apprentice, journalist (for Horace Greeley, no less!), grocer, artist, dockyard worker, dime novelist and so on. We watch as he argues with George Washington in a tavern, he brings Boss Tweed ice cream in jail, he's there at the Great Fire of 1835 and the Draft Riots of 1863, and he bumps into Wordsworth, Mahler, Madonna and Lauren Bacall -- but through it all, he's like one of those figures cut from flannel we used to stick on panoramas in Sunday School. Hamill moves Cormac through the tableaux of time like a wafer-thin object whose main job is to be there.
Forever is slow to start, sagging with exposition in its early pages. The book languishes along in Auld Eire until around page 100 when it suddenly rouses and comes alive with a burst of violence and vengeance. Hamill's action scenes -- where Cormac does more than sit around gawking at history's passing parade -- are written with breathtaking urgency and bloody detail. Unfortunately, they don't come around often enough.
Neither does any prose worth writing home about. This is particularly disappointing for a wordsmith like Hamill who has spent the majority of his life with hands stained by printer's ink. The book's characters, like early revolutionary Mr. Partridge, are given to great speeches sodden with cliché:
"We might have something in our hands that's not been seen in hundreds of years, maybe never, lad. For the King and his hired hands can't forever impose their will on us here, can they? Not with an ocean between them and us. We might have the chance to build a country. Not a colony. A country! Imagine that! And not just a country, a republic!"
Any minute, you expect Ben Franklin, Tom Jefferson and John Adams to enter, stage left, arms linked and start singing about piddle, twiddle and resolve.
Eventually, Cormac starts to fade into the woodwork. The revenge subplot is all but forgotten as are the interesting possibilities which might arise from Cormac's unique curse. Soon, those plot devices become just that: artificial means to justify the novel's real reason for existence -- a panoramic love letter to Hamill's beloved city.
There's really only one character the author cares about, and that's Mr. City -- first name, New; middle name, York. He charts its growth bit by bit, like a sped-up time-lapse movie of buildings rising, falling, rising, spreading, teeming. As we flip through the pages, the city comes alive in pungent, odiferous detail, from Cormac's first glimpse of America:
Manhattan grew larger and more clear. A fort at the tip. Four squat cannon aimed at the bay. Or at the Fury. Low houses behind the fort, and the steeple of a church, and away off to the north, ridged green forests.
To 1834 when the city still lacked running water:
Garbage was piled in the streets to be gathered later, and the mounds served as wormy meals for pigs and dogs and goats and rats. Rain turned the mounds to a vile gray paste; cold froze the mounds; snow buried them. And the animals burrowed noses and snouts and teeth into the mounds, and in summer Cormac saw flies the size of butterflies buzzing above them.
To the finale which takes place in the rubble of September 11, 2001:
The high floor, above the crack, above the flames, right themselves, and then they all come down in a straight line. Floor hitting floor hitting floor, like pancakes from a machine. There's the sound of an avalanche. A glass and steel avalanche. With some high-pitched sound that must be the meshed screams of a thousand human beings.
September 11, history's new line of demarcation, hangs like a finish-line banner over the last 200 pages of the book. We know it's coming -- Hamill drops clues along the way (ominous planes flying overhead, talk of immigrants and terrorists) -- but, as in any marathon, that finish line seems to retreat for every step forward step we marathon-readers take. It feels like forever until we can cross the line and break the tape. | February 2003
David Abrams has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.