It is New York City, circa 1934. In the midst of the Great Depression, physician James Delaney battles the cold winter that accentuates the pain in his right shoulder, the result of a war injury. The leitmotif of his current life is captured in the thoughts that follow him everywhere: “I tried, and too often failed. Most of all, I’ve failed those I loved the most.” His only child, daughter Grace, has left on a mission to track down her lost husband. His wife, Molly, could never come to terms with Delaney’s decision to volunteer for the First World War and absent himself from domestic life for what to her was an eternity. Delaney suspects that her disappearance is actually a suicide. In this ambience of despair, Delaney continues to operate by a unique code of friendship, loyalty, and honor and serves the indigent of the city and Eddie Corso, a gangster who was his battalion mate in the war.
Delaney’s life takes a shocking turn when one day he finds his three-year old grandson, Carlos, on his doorstep with a note from his daughter leaving her son in Delaney’s care while she goes off to Spain to look for her husband. As Delaney struggles to cope with his professional duties and take care of his grandson at the same time, Pete Hamill weaves a sharply nuanced portrait of Depression-era New York City and the vicissitudes of finely etched characters that include the good doctor himself as well as his grandson’s caretaker, Rose Verga, a Sicilian expatriate trying to survive in the New World. As Delaney and Rose face the eddies of life with an energetic toddler, it is inevitable that they become lovers. What holds Delaney back are the memories of Molly and the nagging despair that comes from his inability to correct past wrongs.
Pete Hamill is the Boswell to New York City’s Samuel Johnson. In his books and memoirs, his knowledge of the city and its history take center stage. In North River, Hamill’s New York is but a pale shadow of what it was before the Great Depression. Soup kitchens abound, gangsters run amuck and, much to the surprise of his friends, a physician in private practice can barely make ends meet. Quintessential New York characters – his feisty assistant, Monique, the warm-hearted Italian restaurant owner Angela – are interspersed throughout Hamill’s sometimes taut, occasionally meandering novel.
The disappointment, if any, comes in the novel’s limp coda. As Hamill sets up the various pieces of puzzle of Delaney’s life, the reader is led to believe that there is going to be a significant payoff at the end. That it is not so lends authenticity to the novel but also leaves the reader with a sense of being shortchanged. The saga of the responsible, caring, and troubled James Delaney, physician to the disadvantaged, caretaker of grandson Carlos, and lover of Rose Verga, is a good and satisfying read, notwithstanding its tepid ending.