Monday, September 10, 2012

Immortal Manhattan: Discussing FOREVER by Pete Hamill

Earlier, I was watching the movie Kate & Leopold on tv and all the history of NYC discussed in that movie inspired me to talk about this fantastic book I read recently, Forever by Pete Hamill. The book starts off in Ireland but the majority of it describes the history of NYC (specifically Manhattan, mostly), growing from a boggy, largely undeveloped area and going right up to the September 11 attacks, all seen through the eyes of an immortal man. I felt like the immortal storyline was just an easier way for Hamill to get all the history in there in a logical way without having a flood of characters for a reader to try to keep straight, but that didn't bother me in the least. The history is fascinating and it made for great storytelling. 

"All true stories are unhappy ones. That's the essence of the romantic." 
~ Countess de Chardon, a love interest of Cormac O'Connor. 

In this story, the main character, Cormac O'Connor (orphaned at an early age by the violent deaths of both parents -- the same man responsible for both deaths) is taught of his Celtic heritage (the legends, beliefs, etc) by community elder / magic woman Mary Morrison. Of his parents' death, Mary tells Cormac that those who do not avenge injustice are not allowed into the Otherworld (afterlife / heaven / whatever you want to think of it as) after they die. Cormac grows into a man and commits himself to tracking down the whereabouts of the man responsible for killing his parents, his travels taking him to New York, where the evil nobleman has reestablished himself. On the trip over, Cormac befriends Kongo, an African man bound for the slave markets, sneaking him and his tribal members extra food.  Years down the line, Cormac and his friend end up fighting together in a pre-Revolutionary War battle where Cormac technically gets killed but is brought back to life by Kongo and a special Otherworld friend and told he now has immortality as long as he never leaves the island of Manhattan. He must find his true love (they give him a description of her). Then and only then will he be eligible for entrance into the Otherworld (that part kinda bugged me -- you find the love of your life and then you gotta break it to her that you needed her to basically get some sort of ethereal handstamp into your afterlife?? )

So the history of the area (nearly 300 yrs of it) is then taught to the reader through the eyes of Cormac  -- fires, epidemics, the infamous New York gangs like the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery B'hoys, Tammany Hall and Bill Tweed (who, in the story, becomes a close friend of Cormac's). The descriptions of the "Crown vs. Republic" fights, the hunts for those against one side or the other at times eerily reminded me of the Salem Witch Hunts in their fervor. So, a TON of history covered here. And it's also yet another one in the pile of stories where all the redheads are the "free with her body" types. Ugh. This stereotype hounds me and yet makes me laugh, being a redhead myself. :-P

Hey, one interesting tidbit from the novel I didn't realize -- Henry James' Portrait Of A Lady published same time as OK Corral fight? Never would have put those two historically together before but there you have one of the reasons I love historical fiction. You're having fun with these characters and then they go through something or get connected to some time that you suddenly remember from then on. You remember the event and the details from the book because you loved the character ... almost like word association in a way. Sort of. Pretty cool stuff :-)  Oh, and if you're wondering about the revenge aspect of the story, how it carries over centuries,  Hamill throws in the ol' "oh you don't just have to kill him but every male in his line for it to count" element. So a few of the nobleman's heirs and descendents pop up here and there throughout time to challenge Cormac to keep his promise, though after a century or so he understandably loses his bloodlust and just wants to move on already.

"Manhattan Night" desktop wallpaper... preeetty!

In the reading group guide published in this book, there is a reprint of an interview with Time Out New York Hamill did with Mark Miller where Hamill said part of his inspiration for the novel was Diego Rivera's fresco painting "Dream Of A Sunday Afternoon In Alameda Park". Hamill said he "thought it was amazing how he {Rivera} simultaneously captured different times". Hamill also mentions that he initially finished the novel on September 10, 2001. Of course, how could one write a novel about basically the entire span of NYC history and not include the attacks? 

On September 10, 2001, I finished the book. My plan for the next day was to go to Balthazar and celebrate. But then everything changed. It was nine straight days of work for the Daily News. There was no electricity for four or five days below Worth Street, so at night, walking home, it looked like the nineteenth century. It was kind of beautiful. On my first day off from the News, I told my book editor, 'I need to write more'. I couldn't have a New York novel that had the 1835 fire and the cholera and smallpox epidemics, and not include September 11. It wasn't too hard though. I already had O'Connor living in Duane Street with his apartment looking out over the World Trade Center, where his girlfriend works. It's weird; I finished the novel again on September 9. ~~ author Pete Hamill.

The 9/11 scene was really hard for me to read. I knew it was coming, I knew it involved a fictional character but it's a moment in history I experienced myself so I couldn't help but have my own personal memories of that day flash back at me. So I warn readers who haven't read this yet, brace yourself for that bit at the end! It may be fictionalized but for those of us who weren't babies at the time, it's near impossible not to remember our reality of it. 

I was a little bothered by the ending. Before even starting the novel, I thought to myself, "The main guy is an immortal, hunting down someone as immortals do, and the book stops around the 9/11 attacks... okay, pretty sure I know how he's going to end it..." And sure enough! Arrrr, frustrating. For the time and attention I invested in the characters, I wanted a better wrap up. Didn't have to be happy, just less phoned in! Even so, this has been added to my list of favorites simply because I loved the character of Cormac -- his love of books, his friendships with real historical figures, his adventures even within the limitations of Manhattan. I felt bad for him when he grew to have such wanderlust for the rest of the world. All these elements made me treasure my time reading this book. I read one review somewhere that said this most likely wouldn't appeal to anyone not natively from New York. Not so. I've yet to set foot anywhere in the state, but I was still enamored with the historical stories of that place. Watching Kate & Leopold again and thinking of this book, I would have loved to see old New York, as Hamill describes it with the "chimney pots and slate roofs blue after the rain". And oh my, the chance to have seen the World's Fair the year they tricked out Central Park! Ahh well...

long view of "Dream Of A Sunday Afternoon In Alameda Park" by Diego Rivera1947-48,  Fresco in Alameda Hotel in Mexico Cty

close-up of center of fresco

This book won't be for everyone There is quite a bit of gruesome, violent action, vengence killings, not written for the squeamish. The novel also covers a lot of material, historically speaking, just over 600 pages worth so if you like breezy, quick reads this may not be your thing. This is for those of you (or us, as I'm one of them) who love a good, gritty, detail rich epic. Reading this book, I was thinking this would make a pretty amazing movie or video game even. Come to find out, there's a good deal of interest in this book among tv show producers! The 2008 Fox tv series New Amsterdam (only ran for 8 episodes) had a plotline that was suspiciously similar to Forever (though the African American characters were changed to Native American, and the main character was made a modern day cop instead of a writer but the same, almost verbatim immortal plotline of Hamill's was there). Peter Hamill himself called out the show's producers for the crazy similarites but of course they were like "no, we didn't know anything about your book, this is all us..." C'mooon! More recently, Robert Redford has expressed interest in turning this book into a television series. Word is he's still shopping around for a network to buy it.. well, if all else fails, he might have some shot at that indy channel... what was it... Sundance? ;-)

'Til then, if you like a "movie like that book" kind of thing, there are a number of options... Highlander series, Boardwalk Empire series (technically New Jersey, but similar feel) or this gritty classic (as much as a Dicaprio film can be a classic lol) -- Gangs of New York.

"Cormac noticed as the years passed that New Yorkers shared a sense that whatever had changed, they could do nothing about it. A kind of optimistic fatalism. Reformers arrived with golden promises and left in disgrace and impotence...He never met anyone who yearned for the city before the arrival of the Croton water, the city that smelled of shit. Nor did anyone protest the triumph of electricity, except those Uptown women who longed for the softening glow of gaslight. If the past had been reasonably happy, as New York had been before the collapse of 1893, the new present was drowned in permanent mourning, a lot of it dishonest, driven by a longing to return to the lost past. Cormac had gone through all that too many times. He had seen reputations blaze and then end up as burnt offerings. Heroes too often turned into scoundrels. Banks and corporations and newspapers ruled the city, and ended up as a handful of dust. Even language had term limits. In long separate eras, Cormac heard people use words like "fiddlesticks" and "groovy," and then one morning, as if a secret referendum had been passed, the words vanished. Nobody, of course, ever ran a referendum against the word "bullshit". That was a word and an emotion as permanent as the rivers. But the past had tremendous power here for the very simple reason that it was an American city that actually had a past... he knew the treacheries and dangers of nostalgia. He was, after all, Irish. 'To hell with the past,' he says out loud in the darkened Studio, gazing at the misty towers before him... And yet.. And yet, there were moments, here in the loft, when he longed to see the lost city of chimney pots and slate roofs, all blue after rain. He wanted to stand in woods where wolves still howled. He wanted to sit in the Polo Grounds and look at Willie Mays. At such moments, here, or in Madison Square, or at other odd moments in banal places, it was as if the bars of the mental cage had turned elastic and the past had forced its way out. Anything could set it off: the fragment of a tune, a glimpse of sun on cobblestones in a forgotten street, an accidental encounter with a building where he once knew a woman and loved her, even if she did not love him back."

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

What Kind of Book Reader Are You? A Diagnostics Guide - Entertainment - The Atlantic Wire

Pretty entertaining article! I especially like the recommended reads sections like The Book Buster (someone who bends back spines or leaves them bent open everywhere) "Read whatever you want, but buy a Kindle" or The Cat "This one looks nice and flat"

Slowest Reader Ever

I'd say I'm a blend of "The Bookophile" and the "Delayed Onset Reader #1"
:-). What about you?

What Kind of Book Reader Are You? A Diagnostics Guide - Entertainment - The Atlantic Wire

Sir Edward John Poynter - An Evening at Home