Pete Hamill

"North River"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte NOV 30, 2007)

North River is veteran New Yorker Pete Hamill’s latest creation and it is set during the Great Depression. James Finbar Delaney is an Irish doctor who offers most of his consulting services for free without judgment or bias against his patients. A World War I vet, he returned from the war without use of one arm and couldn’t take up surgery as he had once hoped. So despite holding a prestigious degree from Johns Hopkins, Delaney is forced to eke out a paltry existence in New York City by working as a general practitioner.

When the story opens, Delaney is living with ghosts -- memories of his Irish wife, Molly, who suddenly walked out one day and is presumed to have committed suicide. His daughter, Grace, too has run away and married a revolutionary Mexican.

It is in this setting that Delaney gets a surprise thrown at him--Grace leaves her young son, Carlito, on Delaney’s footsteps essentially leaving the 2-year-old’s care to his grandfather. In a note of explanation, Grace states that she is off to Europe to find her wayward husband whom she suspects of having become involved in Communist activities. Not surprisingly, “Ga’paw” thaws out and enjoys the company of his little charge who regales him with his slow discovery of the world around: “O!” Carlito squeals when he sees snow and “tray” for train. Delaney also hires a young Italian, Rose Verga, to take care of the boy. Rose has a colored past but predictably, Delaney and she begin to get attracted to each other. Rose also takes a fondness towards Carlito whom she nurtures like the son she never had.

Much of the story in North River moves along too predictably. Delaney maintains a friendship with a local mobster, Eddie Corso, who had served alongside him in the war. The relationship gets Delaney into trouble with a rival gangster faction and for a while it seems as if that subplot will provide a narrative worth riding. But that particular trail turns out to be a damp squib. There is of course the other question about whether or not Grace will return to reclaim the now 3-year-old Carlito but by the end of the novel, the reader has lost so much interest, to almost not care.

Some of the period detail of New York City during the Depression make for interesting segments. But the characters in North River seem like clichéd cutouts of real people. There’s the good doctor who nobly soldiers on helping the poor; and Rosa is the spirited if stern Italian filling the kitchen with smells of basil, garlic and olive oil. Even the mobsters all have a heart of gold and their banter with the doctor and with each other feels as old and as expected as a Scorsese flick. One would expect something better from an author of Hamill’s experience and range.

Finally, Hamill’s version of 1930’s New York is filtered through such rose-tinted glasses that it seems quite unrealistic at times. Sure nostalgia can color the past and it is certainly good in small doses. Unfortunately in North River, nostalgia becomes so syrupy that it gets downright cloying. 

  • Amazon readers rating: from 63 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from North River at Hachette Books

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(Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran DEC 22, 2002)

Brick and mortar booksellers are going to have a hard time categorizing the latest work by journalist Pete Hamill. Forever is the story of a young Irishman who immigrates to America in 1741, befriends an African shaman and is granted the gift of eternal life, as long as he stays on the island of Manhattan. The closest category I could devise would be "magically real historical fiction with a little bit of urban biography thrown in for good measure." Try finding that on the shelves of your local Barnes and Noble. Luckily, online, we have no such restrictions and may as just call it a pretty good read.

Read excerptForever follows the life of young Cormac O'Connor for more than 200 years as he lives and loves in New York City. It is as much the story of the city itself as it is the story of Cormac who was born around 1725 in Ireland. O'Connor's family is unusual in that they are neither Catholic nor Protestant instead, they cling to the old pre-Christian Irish religion that most of us would call "pagan." Hamill's descriptions in the beginning of the book are rather blunt, not cluttered with much lyricism, which is, I suppose, owing to his background as an award-winning journalist. However, it is an odd stylistic choice considering the foggy, almost mythical realm of the O'Connors. It reminds me of the foie-gras stuffed hamburger I read of currently being served at a pricey New York restaurant. The O'Connors indulge young Cormac with an almost idyllic childhood, although being neither "prod nor papist" does not endear them to the local British occupying force. Hamill's descriptions of the arctic winter of 1741 and the ensuing famine known as the "year of slaughter" is well researched and chilling. Tragedy strikes doubly hard as first Cormac's mother and later his father are killed, both at the hands of a petty British aristocrat, the Earl of Warren. Cormac swears an oath to kill the Earl of Warren, and all his male descendants and thus follows him to America.

Cormac arrives in New York steeped in Celtic mythology and bent on vengeance. Since revenge is a dish best served cold, he first finds gainful employment with a local printer and takes up with a young indentured servant. O'Connor also espouses an enlightened view of racial equality, befriending slaves and advocating emancipation. He fights in the American Revolution, getting wounded in the Battle of Brooklyn. I must quibble with Hamill's description of the battle though, since guns firing right and left, over and over, just doesn't square with my picture of weapons available during this time period. Mortally wounded, Comac is saved by an African shaman named Kongo, who also grants him the gift of eternal life. Over the ensuing years, Cormac becomes a printer and a newspaper writer, a clever device which gives him access to various and sundry historical events. He disguises himself throughout the years with make up, so he appears to age, thus preserving his secret. Throughout Cormac's long life, Hamill explores the isolation that this immortality demands. Cormac can't fall in love or establish many deep friendships since his secret would become apparent in just a few years. He comes closet to happiness in a love affair with a high class antebellum madame and again in a friendship with the infamous Gilded Age Tammany Hall leader, Boss Tweed.

Hamill is a journalist of course, not a historian or a novelist, so we get quite a bit about the sanctity of journalism and its evolution in the streets of New York. He is aware of sensory details and we learn a great deal about the sights, sounds, and especially the smells of New York. Let's face it, for a long time the city stunk. The lack of water and the feral pigs didn't help matters much. In 2001, a slightly less malodorous time, Cormac meets a young Dominican woman, Delfina Citron. We find out about 200 pages from the end that she works in the World Trade Center, and he is careful to tell us her office is on the 84th floor. Hamill had originally finished this book on September 10, 2001 and had to rewrite the ending in order to accommodate the events of September 11. He deals with the tragedy head on, personalizing it for Cormac in a most profound way.

The size (just over 600 pages) may be daunting to some and the pacing is somewhat uneven. The years 1725 to about 1776 cover around 200 pages, from 1776 to spring, 2001 is about 200 pages and the summer and early fall of 2001 are another 200 pages. One of the chief flaws of novels this thick is that they usually suffer from what I call "The Forrest Gump Syndrome," meaning authors feel their characters need to experience every social trend and political event. Hamill wisely avoids this disease, although I did feel it bogged down, especially toward the end. If you love New York, as Hamill clearly does, you'll find this a pleasant and informative read.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 189 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Forever at

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About the Author:

Pete HamillPete Hamill was born in Brooklyn, N. Y. in 1935. He is the oldest of seven children of Irish immigrants from Belfast, Northern Ireland and attended Catholic schools as a child. He left school at 16 to work in the Brooklyn Navy Yard as a sheetmetal worker, and then went on to the United States Navy. While serving in the Navy, he completed his high school education. Then, using the educational benefits of the G.I. Bill of Rights, he attended Mexico City College in 1956-1957, studying painting and writing.

For several years, he worked as a graphic designer, while studying at Pratt Institute. Then in 1960, he went to work as a reporter for the New York Post. A long career in journalism followed. He has been a columnist for the New York Post, the Daily News, and New York Newsday, and has won many journalistic awards. As a journalist, he has covered wars in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Lebanon and Northern Ireland. From his base in New York he has also covered murders, crime, the police, along with the great domestic disturbances of the 1960s. His work has also been published in all the major magazines, including Esquire, New York, the New York Times Magazine, Playboy, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel/Holiday, Vanity Fair and others; he is currently on the staff of the New Yorker. Most recently, his essay on the Second Amendment for stirred controversy and argument on the Internet.

Hamill also has published eight novels and has written a number of screenplays, most recently a film biography of the Mexican revolutionary leader, Pancho Villa, for Edward James Olmos.

Hamill is married to the Japanese journalist, Fukiko Aoki. He has two grown daughters, one a poet, the other a photographer for the Arizona Republic in Phoenix. He and his wife divide their time between New York and Cuernavaca, Mexico. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014