Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009
“North River:A Novel,” by Pete Hamill. Little, Brown. 342 pps. $25.99.By Tim Rutten
Los Angeles Times
The sort of person who never gets a sentimental catch in the throat isn’t quite trustworthy, but then neither is the guy whose only tears are sentimental.
“North River” ó Pete Hamill’s 10th novel and 20th book ó flirts outrageously with that distinction but ultimately seduces us with the author’s sweetly convinced nostalgia for his city, New York, in that deep Depression year of 1934 and (perhaps more consequentially) with the story telling conventions of that era.
Hamill’s a smart guy and a fluent writer, and few people have written quite so beautifully about New York as he has in recent years. In a recent interview, he offered that, “The most powerful emotion in New York is nostalgia. Not sentimentality, (which) I’m not talking about.” New Yorkers’ nostalgia is “caused by two things,” he said. “One is the physical changes that go on because of the religion of real estate. You go away for the summer, you come back and your favorite coffee shop is erased. The other is because of the immigrants, people who came from some old country, whatever it is, and never wanted to go back, and had nostalgia for it anyway.”
Thus we enter the territory of “North River,” which is what certain native New Yorkers call the Hudson River. It is the icy, bread-line winter of 1934, and Hamill’s protagonist is James Finbar Delaney, the physician son of Irish immigrants. Delaney is a City College- and Johns Hopkins-trained surgeon, forced into general practice by a hand injury he suffered while serving with ó what else? ó the Fighting 69th in World War I. His father, a Tammany pol called “Big Jim” (what else?) and mother, Bridget (what else, indeed?), are dead. His wife, the County Antrim-born Molly, has wandered off, never to be seen again. Their daughter, Grace, has similarly vanished, in search of her husband, a Mexican communist and revolutionary.
What sort of shape is Dr. Delaney in? Well, in a dream, when filling out an imaginary loan application, he answers the question, “Any persistent ailments?” by writing, “Heartbreak.”
So far, so improbable. But suffice to say that Jim Delaney’s heart is as frozen as his January neighborhood’s mean, mainly Irish streets. He returns from a house call to find that Grace has deposited her 2-year-old son, Carlito, on his doorstep. Much that is fumbling and heartwarming follows, although when it becomes clear that the good doctor cannot care for the little boy on his own, a housekeeper and nanny enters the picture ó Rose, an undocumented Sicilian immigrant with a good-size skeleton in her own shallow closet. Much lovingly described Italian cooking and a great deal of dialogue about the kid ó none of which bears quotation ó follows.
Love blooms, and spreads in all directions.
Meanwhile, dramatic tension propels the narrative: Delaney has been called out to treat an old Army buddy who is in the Mafia and has been shot in a mob hit. When Delaney saves his life, the shooters take offense, and tensions, complications and confrontations ensue. The FBI is snooping around, trying to get a fix on Delaney’s daughter, the Red. Rose strikes a nicely contemporary touch when she brains one of their agents with a Louisville Slugger while he’s conducting a warrantless search of Delaney’s office.
There are a number of such touches, including repeated denunciations of domestic violence and drunkenness, as one might expect from Hamill, whose brilliant autobiographical account of his own alcoholism was called “A Drinking Life.”
The real subject here, though, is New York ó and a particular New York at a particular moment. Although WASPs were its first colonists, and blacks have been a factor in the city’s life since Revolutionary times, and Germans, Slavs and Hispanics have followed them, Hamill’s New York enshrines the city’s holy ethnic trinity of Irish, Jews and Italians; they are the book’s focus, and readers are treated to comparative evaluations of their propensities for crime, drink and domestic violence.All the memorable characters fall into one of those categories. There’s Delaney’s guardian angel, the longshoremen’s leader, Knocko Carmody; there’s (of course) the neighborhood philosopher, Izzy the Atheist, who is half Jewish and half Italian. “You and me, Doc, we come from a long line of dead people,” he tells Delaney.
But New York itself is the strongest character. Hamill sums up his feelings about it in a description of the St. Patrick’s Day parade: “He had taken part in many of these parades before the war, starting in the ranks of Holy Redeemer, and later marching with his father, and he hated them and loved them too. Above all, he loved the defiant pride of the marchers. When he was 12 he asked Big Jim why the parade was on Fifth Avenue, where all the rich lived and the only Irish were doormen and maids. And his father said, Big fella, it’s simple: to show those bastards that they got the money but we got the votes. Delaney loved that part, the Tammany tale, and the sense among all of them that they too owned a piece of New York, they had purchased it with sweat and will, they were New Yorkers forever. …”
It is giving nothing away to reassure prospective readers that by the end of Hamill’s story, all accounts are satisfactorily settled, all appropriate balances restored and love has found its improbable way to heartwarming wholeness. When Delaney makes his final break with Molly’s memory, he concludes his reverie thus: “I have found the aroma of life, and it’s full of garlic and basil and oil.”
A guy could do worse . . . and ó in life and fiction ó legions have, to nobody’s profit or particular happiness.
“North River” is a wonderfully old-fashioned, big, wet cinematic kiss of a novel, delivered with a touching conviction that grows naturally out of the author’s literary as well as civic nostalgia. Is it serious? Does he mean it? If you have to ask, you’ve missed the point ó and a good bit of harmless fun too.
People who feel guilty in their pleasure are welcome to recall that the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who grew up in his mother’s Hell’s Kitchen saloon, once remarked, “I don’t think there’s any point in being Irish if you don’t know that the world is going to break your heart eventually.”
In “North River,” Pete Hamill elects to spare his characters ó and his readers ó that tragic wisdom.