In a town full of famous columnists like Jim Dwyer, Maureen Dowd, Anna Quindlen and others, Pete Hamill’s voice has been noted as "distinctive in his visualization" of New York City’s ability to imbibe wave after wave of immigrants as they come with their families, their hopes and their determination to achieve the American dream. Hamill, who's been editor of New York Post and New York Daily News and a columnist for both and for Newsday, still writes about the city that has mesmerized him so. He has also documented his wonder and admiration for the city in The New Yorker and The New York Times. If you like his take on the city and its greatness and weaknesses, you’ll enjoy reading his latest novel, Forever.
Robert Carson, a man born and raised in Ireland close to the earth and the elements of fire, water and wind, lives with his “Da” and “Ma”, John and Rebecca Carson. The hearth, with its dual functions of emanating warmth and being the cooking stove, and the house, with its “whitewashed walls, long and low, with a dark slate roof of glistening in the morning drill,” are the center of his young life. Even at age five, he knows that the house “will turn blue when the sun appears to work its magic.” Through dusk to dawn, the facade of the house changes; “it is never the same and always the same.” His father, the blacksmith, has built the house by himself and it is built it to last:
"On the ceiling, great beams cut from bog oak forma huge A, supporting the layers of thatch and sod, tied firmly with fir rods, that lie beneath the slates…the roof rests on towers of chiseled stone that form the gable ends, each slab cut so fine that they fit together without mortar. The walls are brick, stone, cut rushes that had soured, all bound together and made smooth by river mud and lime wash. A house built like a fortress. Even when he is alone, he is safe."
The house stands near a bridge and road where horses “clattered”, which is why John chose the location. He had built the forge first, a place with “thin plank walls and a roof above it,” not worrying about insulation “since in the heat of the forge and the sweat of his labor, he welcomed the wind.” Robert is fascinated with his father’s tools and work, and he spends hours at first watching and then helping John as he takes from a “scrap heap with broken shears and ruined horseshoes, pieces of undercarriages, even some lumps of bog iron. All to be melted in the heat” because “no metal can resist great heat.” With his skill and “hammers and tongs, chisels and punches, swages and cutters, all hanging from homemade nails,” he “transformed by his marvelous hands” these shapeless heaps into “things new and useful and beautiful.”
In those hours when man and boy work side by side, there is almost no conversation. One night, Robert asks his father whether the stars in the sky are “frozen sparks,” and John agrees, saying that “they all gone into the universe, son,” and they never burn out. Life is simple with simple beliefs. The boy learns that “the first time you do something, it might not be perfect. But you can’t give up. You must try again.”
In time, Robert learns that his parents changed their family names to conceal their true identities – Jewish on his mother’s side and Gaelic on his father’s side. John and Rebecca teach him the history of their origins and he holds his dual identity close to himself, reveling in it. Cormac has inherited the true legacy of his people: the intuitive, instinctive knowledge of the abstract, the ability to see gathering clouds and be able to translate it as “something bad is going to happen.” But both of his parents are killed, at different times under different circumstances, by the hand of the Earl of Warren. According to Gaelic tradition, Cormac, now a young man, must avenge the death of his father.
On this quest, which takes him across the sea to faraway New York City, Cormac takes only the sword that he and his father had so lovingly made together at his father's forge. The sword becomes part of Cormac, as well as his only link to his past life and family. Using it, he avenges the deaths of his family and saves many others, including a charismatic young black slave whom he befriends on the Atlantic crossing. Both men are brave, fearless, adventures and courageous; recognizing their similar qualities, they become friends and manage to communicate even though Cormac is on the top deck and Kongo is in chains on the lower deck.
Cormac does not know that Kongo is his village’s headman and possesses special powers. They meet again in New York City and, after Cormac saves his life, Kongo gives him a gift: immortality, a gift tempered by a few rules. He must never leave the boundaries of New York City; he must never kill himself if he wishes to be reunited with his family in the other world. Kongo also tells Cormac how he can choose to leave this world – through the arms of a dark skinned woman who has spirals on some part of her body and whom he loves.
He must also choose to leave this world from the cave through which he received immortality, through a long process painstakingly described:
"The African held the cup to Cormac's mouth, and he sipped a cold, bitter liquid. Cleansing. Cooling. It seemed to flow through all of his body, and although he could not yet move without pain, his senses were returning. One thing he sensed was the presence of someone else in the cave. When he finished the drink his mouth tasted of lime. The juice of emerald fruit. He tried again to sit up, rose a few inches, and saw a brown gullied scab above his heart. His back felt tightened by another scab. He turned to his side, and pain surged through him, making him gasp…"
Forever, a compelling, powerful, emotionally charged story of Celtic history, revolution, traditions, myths and legends, starts in 1741 in Ireland, when being Catholic means that you must hide your faith and Gaelic religious rituals are carried out secretly. The tale then moves to New York City where the narrator, who has been granted immortality, sees the city form, grow, evolve and become the city it is today. The story ends in present day Manhattan on September 11, 2002.
Cormac’s life runs parallel to the evolution of New York City. In fact, the values of Cormac’s people mirror the struggles of immigrants and the search for justice, equality, liberty and freedom that the city, indeed the whole nation, is based on. To put it in a simple metaphor, Cormac’s life is shaped by his father’s blacksmith skills; he literally molds the lives of his family by building everything they depend on. The city, through the hard work, contribution and dedication of the immigrants who land there, is shaped and reshaped until it is stoic, tough and strong, just like today.
New York City is almost another protagonist, not just “a gigantic horizontal sculpture.” Hamill is obviously a history buff. He takes readers through the slave uprising of 1741, where Irish workers and blacks conspired together, the terrible diseases, and the scandals about the lack of water, which was largely ignored by the politicians.
Cormac is invited into the world of publishing by a man whom he helps on the ship and, already an ardent admirer of Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift by the early influence of his father, he has no qualms of jumping straight into it and from there into the world of journalism, where he is a natural. He meets Walt Whitman, Lady Day, and Duke Ellington, and manages to save the life of General George Washington during the Battle of Harlem Heights.
Cormac writes about the art, the culture, the greedy politicians, people like Boss Tweed,and the immigrants who transform the city into concrete and skyscrapers, which he describes as “the tall broad shouldered buildings of Central Park West” which form “a black wall pierced with diamonds.” In his seemingly endless life, Cormac lives through typhoid, diphtheria and cholera outbreaks, has superficial relationships with hundreds of women, makes few true friends, continues to look for his father’s sword, tries to find bliss by painting, sculpting, reading, taking long walks and finally meeting the woman who is his destiny. He likes helping people; he likes having friends and relationships. But he can never be his true self with others because he eventually, always, outlives them.
With September 11th, life changes forever. In some part of Cormac’s heart, he believes that something of the city has died, that “the city is gone now, dissolved by the falling rain…he will see no more trembling eastern dawns, no more scarlet western dusks, no sun rising in Brooklyn to set in New Jersey. This is the end of it. The city is erased from sight as the towers are…"
Forever is an amazing book because of the sheer volume of history and the seductiveness of New York City, its uniqueness and its “eternity”. The city will go on, it will endure; it is the best city in the whole world. This is the message Hamill has for his readers, and it is an especially urgent one after the ordeal of September 11th, which altered its skyline and traumatized it citizens.
Hamill proves that he is a writer of the senses, capturing the colors of the seasons, the pulse of the city, the heat, the undimmed lights of the skyscrapers, the breeze of the river and finally the sounds of the city. There are African drums, salsa music, Irish songs and the background of Yankee games on television in darkened bars. If you close your eyes, you can con yourself into believing that you are in New York City.
This book is his love letter to the city, an acknowledgement and salute to the many rewards he has gained by covering it as a reporter since the early sixties and by simply being a New Yorker. It’s too early to say whether this is his swan song, but it may be remembered as his best commentary ever. It will be there for history and journalism buffs to read for, well, forever.
A quintessential writer who simply must write, be it fiction or nonfiction, Hamill has authored two previous bestselling books, Snow in August and the memoir A Drinking Life. He still writes a column for New York Daily News and lives in New York City with his wife, the writer Fukiko Aoki.