By Pete Hamill
Reading Forever immediately after The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay made for an interesting comparison, since both books are about New York, both written by men who obviously have deep and abiding love for the city. But where Kavalier & Klay is more a portrait, a snapshot of the city at a particular moment, Forever is more like a time-lapse film. And while Michael Chabon's novel exudes the vigor and excitement of the post-war era, Pete Hamill's book has that sense of solemnity that I associate with Old-World legends and, perhaps, magic realism. Actually, Forever probably fits that latter camp pretty well, given both its premise and its execution.
Forever is the story of Cormac O'Connor, born in 1723 outside of Belfast. At the age of 17, Cormac makes his way across the Atlantic to New York to avenge his father's murder, in the process of which he's mortally wounded. He's brought back from the brink of death by an African shaman, who gives him the "gift" of eternal life, though with the condition that he can never leave the island of Manhattan. Thereafter, we follow Cormac through the history of the city, straight through until the present day. Cormac sees the Revolutionary War, the Great Fire of New York in 1835, the corruption of Tammany Hall, and the destruction of 9/11, and Hamill presents it all with a sharp eye for history.
I found this book interesting for a lot of reasons, not least of which was the main character. In some ways it's tempting to see Cormac as heroic for his moral stance against slavery and injustice and his actions in helping the little guy. He appreciates art and music, accumulates a wealth of knowledge, and loves the city that he's watched grow from its infancy. Too, the tragic nature of his solitude plays on our sympathies. And yet, the genius of Hamill's characterization is that as alluring a character as Cormac is, he's more complex than that. He reveals himself to be selfish, even mean at times. And his adherence to the code of his Gaelic ancestors--requiring him to seek revenge not only on his father's murderer, but also all of the man's descendants--leaves an unpleasant taste in your mouth. Or mine, anyway.
All in all, Forever is a great read, the prose constantly evolving and changing along with the history it recounts--the opening chapters, recounting Cormac's youth, read like a fable, but before the end of the book the style catches up to the modern day. The whole thing is just beautiful.
Pete Hamill seems to get called "a New York legend" with some frequency--which you'd expect of a man who was editor-in-chief of both the New York Post and the New York Daily News. I'd say, though, that even if he'd done nothing else, the strength of this book alone might just be enough to earn him that title.
Started: 2/23/2010 | Finished: 3/5/2010
The edition I read actually has an author's note to that effect--he finished the book for the first time on September 10, 2001, then the next day realized that there was no way he could leave those events out. Personally, I'm not sure I can think of a different way for the book to end, and there's quite a bit of foreshadowing leading up to it, which I thought worked pretty well. Also, I think that without Delfina and the conclusion, the book would feel very unfinished and unsatisfying. For me, anyway. Though I suppose that that part would have been in there anyway, had his original draft been able to stand.
This is one of my favorite books, a beautiful love letter to the city of New York. When I reread it, though, I always stop and put away the book before the last part. For one thing, the events of 9/11 are disturbing enough in my mind that reading about them in this book is uncomfortable. But also, it really feels like Hamill finished his whole book and then, when the city was attacked, realized that real-life events ruined the ending of his book so that he had to revise it to include the attack. The revision is not as good as what came before (and I'm pretty sure Hamill knows it, too).