Pete Hamill’s Fairy Tale

Pete Hamill passed away this week. He was one of the last of the old school journalists.

I don’t know if this place is still in business, but I reviewed one of Pete’s books back in the day and I remember when I did my research that I had a lot of respect for how tough he was.

Anyway, Pete Hamill. Forever.

Pete Hamill has reached a new zenith with his new novel, Forever.  It is an epic chronicle not only of the life of a man but the birth of one of America’s most vibrant and diverse cities – with all the blood, sacrifices and human frailties that great cities require.

At its heart is Cormac O’Connor, who chases a dastardly Earl from Ireland to the teeming shores of Manhattan seeking revenge for the death of his father, a blacksmith who literally forges swords from plowshares.  The story is rich with the myths of the world’s primal cultures from Ireland, Africa, and Mexico, from which Hamill tries to find a common foundation among them.  The central theme involves the Irish story of Tir Na Nog, the land of eternal youth, which in legend is always found to the west of the old country.

In the course of his pursuit, he saves the life of an African shaman, who gives him a blessing and a curse.  Young Cormac is given life everlasting but even eternity has rules.  Cormac must live his long life on the island of Manhattan and glory in all that it has to offer, according to the shaman’s direction.

“To find work that you love, and work harder than the other men.  To learn the languages of the earth and love the sounds of the words and the things they describe.  To love food and music and drink.  Fully love them.  To love weather, and storms, and the smell of rain.  To love heat.  To love cold.  To love sleep and dreams.  To love the newness of each day,” the shaman bids Cormac.

It might be a tall order but Hamill does his best to put Cormac through his paces over the next 200 odd years, forcing him through cholera plagues, the burning of the Five Points, doomed love affairs, and all the other hazards that New York summons for him.  Cormac is privy, too, to some of the defining moments in the city’s history as he encounters such formidable historical luminaries as George Washington, Boss Tweed and Willie Mays.

Hamill indulges in a certain amount of a novelist’s conceit as Cormac obviously reflects many facets of the author’s own life, including a career as a journalist, a sideline as a painter, and a distinct affection for things Mexican.  However, Cormac is much like Hamill himself, being a reflection of Ireland through the prism of Manhattan and a keen observer of the human condition.  Hamill’s years of practice as a reporter at the New York Post serve him well here as he describes the phases of O’Connor’s life, which run between cycles of terrific delight and sublime loneliness.  After all, it is an extraordinary experience to watch everything you love die: neighborhoods, cultures, even all your friends and lovers, too.

Pete Hamill finished Forever on September 10, 2001, but fate wasn’t done with New York and so the author was forced back to the novel to rebuild his ending.  While the tragedy that fall had a profound impact on Hamill’s world, he also had to present his protagonist in true form with the last 245 years that we as readers have spent with him.  With only a few reservations, I believe he succeeds in knitting together the tragedy and triumph of both Cormac and New York with only a minimal amount of manipulation.

Like the bits of metal that Cormac’s father forged into a weapon of honor or the New Yorkers who rose out of the ashes of tragedy, Cormac himself is beaten and tempered on the anvil that is Manhattan.  Despite the fire of adversity and through his quick wits and passion for the great city, Cormac finds the true metal of his character and makes a life in a hard New World.

Ultimately, Forever is a rich and ingenious marriage between genres.  Adventure, mystery, fantasy and memoir are boiled into a rich, hardy, and ultimately palatable stew.  Virtue is rewarded and evil is punished.  What more could you want from a fairy tale?