Published by Little, Brown and Company
Review by W. R. Greer
There are just a few writers who should attempt to write a novel about the history of New York City, and Pete Hamill is probably at the top of that list. He's been the editor in chief of the New York Daily News and the New York Post and has written for the New York Times, The New Yorker, and Newsday. To tell the story of the city, he creates the character of Cormac O'Connor, an Irish boy who emigrates to Manhattan in 1740 and remains there forever. It's an interesting plot concept to have one person see and tell the whole history of a city, as opposed to a sweeping drama following a family from generation to generation. Unfortunately, this approach does not succeed, despite the author's best efforts.
The novel is broken into several sections. The first is the most riveting, telling of Cormac's boyhood in northern Ireland in the 18th century. When we first meet Cormac, he is called Robert Carson, a pseudonym to make his family look Protestant. In an area of Ireland where Catholics are victims of legal discrimination and violence, Cormac's parents decided it was wise to attend church and send their son to a Protestant school. Yet his folks weren't Catholic. Cormac's mother was Jewish and his father practiced the ancient Irish religion. Pete Hamill does a wonderful job bringing the Irish countryside to life in all its lushness and rhythms juxtaposed with the cruelty of its people and its weather. Cormac's mother is killed in an accident by a carriage carrying the Earl of Warren. His father, a blacksmith, creates a sword with his own hands and buries it in the yard for when the troubles will come. He trains Cormac in the old Irish ways, including revenge. Anyone who murders a member of the family must be pursued to the ends of the earth and killed, as well as any of his male heirs. Their line must be brought to an end. If the family murder is not avenged, then he will never be able to enter the Otherworld and join his ancestors there.
Predictably enough, Cormac's father is murdered when the Earl of Warren tries to take a horse from him. In a controlled rage that burns from the page, Cormac does his best to exact his revenge, killing at least one of the earl's henchman and burning his estate to the ground. Upon learning that the earl has left for the colonies in the New World, Cormac races to the coast in time to catch the next ship. Starving, freezing, and moving past the dead who have frozen to death in winter's grip, Cormac's magical steed, Thunder, reaches the dock just as the ship is pulling away. With a mighty leap, Thunder boards the boat, deposits Cormac on deck, and swims back to shore.
That fantastical leap by the horse (who keeps reappearing in New York over the centuries) is a portent of things to come, the requirement of suspension of belief that will be necessary to accept the rest of this story. Unfortunately, it also marks the end of any real drama for the rest of the novel. Suspending belief to accept an unusual story line is as old as history itself, but the return for the reader should be a dramatic plot and deep immersion within a character, both flawed and heroic, one where the reader can place himself in the character's shoes and feel his passion and rage and love. Once Cormac sets sail for New York, the passion begins to bleed from this novel.
The ocean crossing aboard the ship becomes hellish. Cormac has only his father's sword, his mother's spiral earrings, and some gold coins as his inheritance. He's able to purchase passage in a cabin rather than being kept belowdecks with the other Irish. The boat hits the doldrums where no wind blows, and they sit going nowhere, slowly giving in to fever and hunger. Multiple funerals are soon held every day with the bodies slid into the ocean. Cormac watches all this dispassionately, feeling neither disgust nor anger at the transpiring events. He goes down to the slave hold each day to share some of his meager rations with the Africans locked below. There he makes contact with Kongo, the first African he's ever met in his life.
Upon arriving in New York in 1740, Cormac sees the small town it is then on the island of Manhattan. The Africans are enslaved to either new owners in the city or shipped off to the southern colonies. Most of the Irish have come to the New World as indentured servants. They are treated no better than slaves until they work off their seven-year servitude. Cormac rents a room in one of the few places in New York where Irish and Africans can meet together in the pub. He meets Kongo again and they strike up a friendship. Kongo helps him track down the Earl of Warren and exact revenge for his father's death. Cormac is unable to kill the earl's pregnant wife, and she sets sail for the Carolinas the next day. A slave rebellion planned from the Irish pub brings fire to much of the city, and the ensuing retribution by the English authorities brings hanging and burning at the stake for the conspirators. When a group of townspeople attack Kongo, Cormac jumps in with his sword to protect him. A pistol shot to the chest kills Cormac.
Kongo, however, is a babalawo, a shaman from Africa in contact with the ancient gods. He heals Cormac and gives him the gift of everlasting life, but with conditions. Cormac must never leave the island of Manhattan and he can only pass on to the Otherworld where his family awaits by making love to a woman marked with spirals in the very cave where Kongo has brought him back to life. Cormac must also actively enjoy his life and love music and women and food. It's a prescription for living life to its fullest. He follows the letter of this law, but not the spirit. Cormac watches the next 240 years of city history, becoming a connoisseur of music, literature, and art, yet he stays aloof from the city residents, avoiding love and attachment since he knows he'll outlive everyone he meets.
Pete Hamill's story meanders for centuries, becoming an occasion for name dropping of historical figures and a source of trivia knowledge since Cormac witnesses every important event in Manhattan's history. There is no plot once Cormac is able to live forever, since he purposely avoids any drama in his life. He even comes to this realization himself, remarking "I have this strange life, but it's not, in the end, strange at all. There is no plot. There is only luck and chance."
The novel jumps from the Revolutionary War (where Cormac kills one of the Earl of Warren's male descendants), to the cholera epidemics of the 1830s and the fire that burns one-third of the city, to Boss Tweed in the 1870s, and then a big leap to 2001 and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. The reading is tedious. Cormac doesn't grow as a character, he just becomes more talented at the arts. He doesn't appear to learn any new lessons about the human condition, and he imparts no knowledge that he accumulates over the centuries to anyone at all. It is no surprise that when Cormac finally finds the woman adorned with the spirals, that he eagerly looks forward to passing to the Otherworld.
Drama finally returns to the novel in the last 30 pages, when Cormac encounters another of the Earl of Warren's male descendants and begins to fall for the woman with the spirals. Cormac's experiences on September 11 brings the rage and passion back to his life that had disappeared over 200 years ago. By this time, though, the novel is 600 pages long and the reader has languished for most of it. It takes forever to finish this book.
Pete Hamill's endeavor was probably an impossible task. There is too much history, too many stories and interesting historical figures, to fit into one story of New York City. Cormac O'Connor fails to carry the story, and ultimately, the city is unable to carry it either. Pete Hamill's love for the city is evident throughout this book, and those already steeped in its history may find this novel more enjoyable than others. I suspect most readers, though, will finish it with a dissatisfied thud unless they've tossed it aside long before they get there.
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