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?

 

 

The Criminal Mind of Anthony Bourdain

BourdainBelieve or not, Anthony Bourdain has a truly criminal mind.

Oh, sure, you might have gotten hints of his felonious character in the pages of his wildly entertaining memoir, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, or on the small screen as the former chef travels the world eating strange things and getting into trouble on No Reservations and Parts Unknown.

But what even hardcore fans and casual foodies probably don’t know is that Bourdain not only has a serious jones for crime fiction but he’s one of the genre’s most gifted practitioners. They say to write what you know, and Bourdain does it to perfection by writing about the strange intersection of crime and cooking in three deft novels, two outlandish graphic novels, and one hard-to-categorize urban historical.

The One-Two Punch

Long before Kitchen Confidential was even a glimmer in the chef’s eye, Bourdain was already a well-established crime novelist. His debut novel, Bone in the Throat, was published in 1995. The book is about an up-and-coming chef, Tommy Pagano, and his misadventures working around the mob in Little Italy. While it’s clearly the work of a novice writer, it’s here that Bourdain starts to captures the sounds and smell and blistering heat of a working kitchen while also developing his own twisted sense of humor. This gets real obvious when Tommy has to explain how a hit man entered his kitchen but isn’t seen leaving.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t say anything,” Tommy tells his boss. “I mean, what am I gonna say, ‘Sorry chef, I had a couple of friends over last night and they sort of chopped a guy up with your knife and I think it’s maybe damaged a little bit’?”

Gone BambooThe author starts to stretch with his 1997 follow-up Gone Bamboo, which follows a CIA-trained assassin and his wife down to the Caribbean for semi-retirement until a mob boss in the witness protection program screws everything up. It’s a wackier setup more suited to readers who enjoy the late Elmore Leonard but Bourdain’s mouth-watering descriptions of island grills and five-star restaurants are sure to leave them hungry for more.

The Pièce de Résistance: Bobby Gold and Typhoid Mary

Bourdain has admitted plenty of times that fame and his work on television puts a dent in his writing. That may be why two of his best works came directly on the heels of Kitchen Confidential’s publication in 2000. In 2001, the chef published two new short works that demonstrate his writing at its peak.

Typhoid MaryThe first is a strange experiment that attempts to humanize a woman who has long since been demonized by history. In Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical, Bourdain pays homage to Mary Mallon, the Irish cook who became an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever, leading her to infect at least 50 people during her term as a cook. In a gentle remembrance, Bourdain describes traveling to Mallon’s grave in the Bronx to lay his first chef’s knife at her resting place.

Something a fellow cook would appreciate, I hoped – a once fine hunk of quality French steel – a magical fetish, a beloved piece of my personal history. And a sign of respect, I hoped, an indicator that somebody, somewhere, even long after her troubles and her dying, took her seriously, understood, if only a little bit, the difficulty of her life as a cook. It’s the king of gift I would like to receive, one that I would understand.

I looked around the graveyard, making sure that no one else was watching, leaned over and with my hands, pulled back the grass at the base of her stone. I slipped my knife down there, covered it up the way it had looked before and left it for her. It was the least I could do.

A gift. Cook to cook.

Bourdain followed up this delicate wonder with his finest work, a slender, vicious portrait of a New York bonebreaker, Bobby Gold. It’s an incredible book not because its prose is florid but because Bourdain has stripped the novel down just its elemental parts, like a chef breaking down a side of beef. It opens on Bobby in the seventies, already in trouble.

Bobby Gold at twenty-one, in a red-and-white Dead Boys T-shirt, blue jeans, high-top Nikes and handcuffs, bending over the hood of the State Police cruiser, arms behind his back, wished he was anywhere but here.

Continue reading

Four in the Morning, the End of December

It’s raining in San Francisco.

It’s kind of amazing because I was starting to feel like I had escaped weather entirely by moving to the Peninsula. After a very wet spring in Colorado, the weather here hadn’t deviated more than five degrees for months until the monsoon started a few days ago.

(See, I broke one of the cardinal rules of writing there. Never start with the weather).

Anyway, I just popped in to archive a few stories and refresh the blog before another new year begins. This one has been crazy enough.

IMG_3549Just to finish up the project, in mid-October I flew down to Austin to award the Kirkus Prize in Literature for nonfiction, along with my comrades-in-arms, Marie du Vaure of the Getty Museum and prolific essayist Meghan Daum. It was a closer race than you might imagine but in the closing minutes, the prize went to Ta-Nahisi Coates for his emotional and brilliant book, Between the World and Me. In some ways, it was a strange year to be a judge for the Kirkus Prize because of the wealth of nominees. But despite the diversity in this year’s starred books, there was still a clear winner, as evidenced by Coates winning the National Book Award just a month later. Can I pick ’em or what? You can read about all of the other winners here.

Working my way through the Kirkus Prize and applying the skills to pay the bills has been pretty much all-consuming through the fall, but here are a few stories that have been published in the meantime.

  • ZeroesI interviewed one of my favorite writers, Chuck Wendig, about his new novel, NOT STAR WARS. I’ve always liked Chuck’s writing advice that he inflicts on his audience at his blog, Terrible Minds, so it was a pleasure to talk to him about his new sci-fi novel Zer0es. Check out his violent and horrible series that starts with Blackbirds as well. I was sad to hear that the adaptation of his Miriam Black novels over at Starz is now kaput but he did offer the perfect writer’s reaction to the news: “Hey, I got paid at least.” It didn’t hurt that when I interviewed him it was a month away from his publishing the first in-canon Star Wars novel since the original trilogy ended, Star Wars: Aftermath. Chuck has since fielded some, er, “interesting” reviews for the bare minimum diversity he chose to include in the book, and his reaction is dead on: ” If you can imagine a world where Luke Skywalker would be irritated that there were gay people around him, you completely missed the point of Star Wars. It’s like trying to picture Jesus kicking lepers in the throat instead of curing them. Stop being the Empire. Join the Rebel Alliance. We have love and inclusion and great music and cute droids.”
  • StrangersAnother title that has kind of flown under the radar is Larissa MacFarquhar’s fascinating and terrifying debut, Strangers Drowning. Just after I moved to California, I caught up with the New Yorker journalist to talk about her portraits of extreme altruism. What I loved most about this book is that the author doesn’t bring any kind of moral agenda to her work. “If readers are moved to do more themselves, that’s terrific, but as much as I want to show that these people are admirable, I also want to show that what they have chosen to do is very difficult and they are very tough to be able to deal with it,” she told me. “I didn’t want to cover that up or simplify their difficulties.”
  • SamI think I’ve ended the year with my interview with music journalist Peter Guralnick about his comprehensive biography of Sam Phillips. Long before I decided to do this for a living, I remember listening to Peter’s Elvis biographies as audiobooks when I was working for a library. Sam was also still kicking around Memphis when I was a kid, so it was interesting to take this deep dive into the guy who pretty much made Elvis, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Okay, I think that’s it for now. There are more stories to tell at some point, like the bizarre job interviews I’ve had here in the start-up culture, but I think they’ll wait for another day. See you on the other side.

The Kirkus Prize

kirkus-prize-2015-170x170Just stopping by with a professional update.

The Kirkus Prize is one of the richest literary awards in the world, with a total prize of $150,000 awarded annually in recognition of outstanding literary achievements. It was created to celebrate more than 80 years of discerning, thoughtful criticism that Kirkus Reviews has contributed to both the publishing industry and readers at large. Books that earned the Kirkus Star with publication dates between November 1, 2014, and October 31, 2015 (see FAQ for exceptions), are automatically nominated for the 2015 Kirkus Prize, and the winners will be selected on October 15, 2015, by a panel composed of nationally respected writers and highly regarded booksellers, librarians and Kirkus critics.

I am honored to be chosen to judge the 2015 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction, along with highly-respected bookseller Marie du Vaure of the Getty Museum, and prolific author and essayist Meghan Daum. You can read about all of the 2015 judges including those for fiction and young readers’ literature here. You can also find all of the 2015 nominees for nonfiction here, the 2015 nominees for fiction here, and the 2015 nominees for Young Readers’ Literature here.

A Little Good, A Little Bad…Bit of Both

Just popping in here to archive three very different new interviews that are up on Kirkus Reviews in recent days.

Funny GirlA little good: I first met Nick Hornby about fifteen years ago—I think he was touring behind How to Be Good, but I can’t be sure. No, come to think of it, it had to be earlier because I had a signed copy of his anthology Speaking With the Angel. That was an interesting copy. At one point, it had been signed by Nick as well as Dave Eggers, Roddy Doyle, and Helen Fielding and I’m sure I could have gotten a line on Irvine Welsh and Zadie Smith eventually. But then I went to England and it just became another one of my Lost Things.

That meeting happened not long before I became a writer myself, so it was cool to interview Nick about his terrific new novel, Funny Girl, for Kirkus Reviews. It’s a novel about a young beauty queen from Blackpool who comes to London to become a star, and does. I can testify that London always seemed that way—if you had good teeth and could knock two sentences together, it felt like you could have your own television show. I was surprised to learn that Sophie, the sparky comedienne who centers the novel, was inspired in part by Nick’s interactions with the lovely Rosamund Pike, who appears in An Education starring Carey Mulligan, with screenplay by Nick Hornby. But we also got around to talking about how An Education and Funny Girl, which are both historical set pieces set in the 1960s, naturally fell into one another, even as Hornby was writing about two very different kinds of girls.

“I suppose, both with An Education and Funny Girl, their lives are circumscribed to a certain extent by the times and expectations and barriers to where they want to be,” Hornby explained. “Young men don’t tend to have those barriers. Much of what stops them from becoming who they want to be is internal. I became interested in the perimeter fence, if you like. It’s kind of intrinsically dramatic. You definitely can’t have one without the other. I was reading a lot about the period when I was writing the movie, so that developed a real interest in the times for me. I had never written anything historical before I wrote An Education, and I really enjoyed it. In a way, it was slightly frustrating to have to stop in 1964, because I knew that the world was about to change. I wanted to find a way to write about that change from an angle. I guess the interesting thing about that kind of entertainment industry was that they weren’t as affected by the Beatles and everything else that came after.”

Coop_9780804140560_jkt_all_r1.inddA little bad: When Elmore Leonard passed away in 2013, I was bummed out for a while. Someone that influential—especially someone you met and spoke with a few times—at first you think, “Man, there aren’t going to be any more of those books now.” But then someone comes along and smacks you between the eyes with a killer tale and eventually you realize that Elmore Leonard was the Big Star of crime writers. (This observation is brought to you by the old joke that almost no one ever bought a Big Star record but every single person who did went out and started a band).

The kick-ass book that landed on my desk a while back that reminded me a lot of Elmore’s books was The Marauders by Tom Cooper. It’s a nasty little story about scumbags out in the bayou fighting over drugs and lost pirate treasure and it was really great. It reads like John D. McDonald and Elmore Leonard went out and had horrible little babies. It even got a blurb from Stephen King, who almost never comes out for this sort of thing anymore, but I think I prefer the words of fellow crime novelist Richard Lange (Sweet Nothing, 2015, etc.) who said, “It’s funny, sad, and wise, sometimes in the same sentence.”

Not that these things always go smooth. I got to track down Cooper at his lair down in NOLA, and you can read that interview in Kirkus as well. But we also got to talking about the absurdities of marketing and I got to the bottom of how a brutish crime story about one-armed treasure seekers, psychotic killers and off-the-rails drug dealers ultimately connected to…Harry Potter.

“It had a couple of crappy titles for a while,” Cooper told me. “It was called The Muck and the Mire for some time. It was only a few months later that I got a different perspective. It sounds like some kind of Fiona Apple album instead of this novel. It was also called Barataria for a while, and my editors very wisely pointed out that the title implied a familiarity with southern Louisiana that people just don’t have. They wouldn’t know what it means. It was actually a few of my ex-students who are now friends that suggested the Marauders, because of the Harry Potter connection. At first, I thought, I don’t want to make that kind of connection. Then I got to thinking about it, and I said, yeah, I would love to get connected to that thing. If I could sell some books, I would put a wizard on the cover if I could.”

The Long and Faraway GoneFinally, here’s a bit of both. Every now and then you hit a novel where once you talk to the writer you quickly find out that he has no idea at all how really gripping his book is—my guess is that once you get that close to a piece of work, you inhabit its world so fully that you can’t see it with fresh eyes anymore. That was the case with The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney. I don’t usually take “work books” with me on vacation but I happened to grab this one by accident when I took it with me to San Francisco, and it really grabbed me. Now, I knew Lou had written two solid and funny crime novels, Whiplash River and Gutshot Straight, about a retired wheelman named “Shake” Bouchon, but this new one hit me in a very different place. When I wasn’t navigating Chinatown and the Embarcadero, Berney had me wrapped up in Oklahoma City in the mid 1980s—part of it is because I’m the right age to remember what it was like growing up in rural America before the Internet and smart phones, but I can tell you that Berney captures the mood perfectly.

The book concerns a private eye named Wyatt who is forced by circumstances to return to Oklahoma City where he grew up. When he was just a kid working in a movie theater as a teenager, Wyatt was the only survivor of an armed robbery that killed six of his co-workers in cold blood. Wyatt’s counterpart in this murky story is Julianna, whose beautiful sister Genevieve disappeared from the state fair in 1986, the same summer as the theater shooting. It’s eerie stuff, drawing influences seamlessly from all sorts of noir traditions and literary styles. This thing even came out in trade paperback first, so I highly recommend picking it up when you get chance. As it happens, I did manage to interview Lou a few weeks later and we talked about some of the things that influenced The Long and Faraway Gone.

“One of my favorite novelists is Tana French, the Irish writer,” Berney told me. “I love In The Woods, which I didn’t read until I started this novel, but it has the same kind of central issue where something happens to the main character long ago and there are no easy answers. What I took from her book is that as long as you answer the main mysteries, you can leave other things unsaid, which feels real. I like the idea that Wyatt is never going to know why he was left alive. You can’t leave him on the hook. It’s too easy. You have to make sure you cover all the other bases or I feel you’re cheating as a writer.”

I also did what I find myself doing with most crime writers lately, which is to delve into the perceived differences between crime writers and so-called “literary fiction” writers. You know where I stand—I think people like Tana French and Ian Rankin and Dennis Lehane are doing some of the finest writing of the 21st century and will happily put any of their work up against something like Cloud Atlas or Haruki Murakami any day of the week. But I can’t seem to stop myself from asking these guys where they see themselves in the big picture, and Berney had thoughtful things to say.

“I am playing around in the pool but I have deep and abiding respect for the work that is being done and has been done,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of great writers like Ross Thomas who didn’t get their due, so it’s nice to see people in the genre getting their due now. I think there’s just so much opportunity to stretch in crime. It’s not limiting. You can be Dennis Lehane or you can be Donald Westlake or you can be Laura Lippman or Sara Paretsky. It’s such a big tent and there’s so much opportunity to write exactly what you want to write. I’ve been able to write these two fast, fun crime novels in the vein of Elmore Leonard but I’m also able to write this new book, and my publisher is thrilled about all of it. It’s not a narrow genre so I never feel like I’m trapped in a cage. That’s incredibly liberating, to be able to do anything you want in a crime book.”

That seems as good a place to stop as any: do anything that you want to. Seems like fair advice for clean living, right?