Hamill's Colossus on the Hudson

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Hamill's Colossus on the Hudson

Postby timberline » Thu Dec 21, 2006 7:54 am

Pengwenn's challenge a month or so ago to write a review pulled me back into this classic genre. Was it Ben Jonson who said to Gibbons about Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, "Another great fat book, eh, Gibbons? Scibble, scribble, scribble!" Well, some writers need all the help they can get.

Street Writing

New York City was the subject of a marvelous hallelujah chorus about three years ago by Colin Whitehead called The Colossus of New York. A multitude of other writers—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Walt Whitman, Washington Irving, Norman Mailer—have also used the city as a backdrop to drama.

Pete Hamill, former editor of the New York Daily News, however, has devoted virtually his whole life to exploring and writing fiction, current events and history about this colossus on the Hudson. It made me wonder if there are any other cities that have been given such microscopic attention with such consumate skill. Chicago or San Francisco or New Orleans? Not really any comparison there.

Hamill’s Forever focused on an Irish immigrant in the mid-18th century who was cursed to live forever as long as he never set foot off the island of Manhattan, and we followed the protagonist through the Revolutionary War, meetings with 19th century politicoes and finally his escape into mortality in the late 20th century. Wow! What a premise, and what a canvas for painting the portrait of a city.

Snow in August was a beautiful story of growing up in Brooklyn in the 1940s and the ethnic soup that makes the city vibrate like a high-tension wire. Downtown gave us the history of the city as only a newspaperman walking the streets could write it. I was a newspaperman for a short while before putting in thirty-five years as a corporate editor and PR practitioner on Park Ave. Like New York Times man Russell Shorto’s Island at the Center of the World, Downtown was also a wonderful education into why the city is one of the most dynamic, tolerant and international metropolises in the world. I mean, what other city in 1643 had a population of 800 who spoke 18 languages?

Pete Hamill is less a stylist than a damn competent writer, whose words march across the pages in orderly fashion and whose subjects provide the drama and verve that carry the story forward. It is their stories—not Hamill’s—that brings tears to my eyes even when the situation he describes is humorous.

With every one of his books, a part of me felt sorry I left my shotgun flat on Sixth St. at Avenue B in 1974, but—mea culpa—I worried that I’d come home one day and see my son riding the bumper of a Second Avenue bus, and so opted for a one-fifth-acre barony in Jersey. I copped out; Hamill didn’t.

J.D. Salinger had Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield wishing that a good book would never end, and that when it was finished he wanted to write the author a letter. I remember how infrequently I heard from my corporate readers unless I spelled their name wrong or failed to cover their success in some achievement or other, so I wrote Hamill a letter not too long ago. I told him, “Among the many memorable pieces you’ve written, I feel the one that best sums up the city’s place in history and the arts is your eulogy to Susan Sontag and Jerry Orbach a year ago.” In it, he had said, “In its tough, often remorseless way, New York is a crucible for every manner of talent. Some of the talented young are swiftly defeated, and retreat into more ordinary lives. Others are shooting stars, here and gone. Those made of sterner stuff last longer, and it helps if they have lived on our streets.” Place and people; they’re inextricably connected. People go to New York to get away from America.

And I thanked Hamill for helping make some sense out of life and the city.

He didn’t answer my letter, but then readers don’t usually write to authors and editors. Holden Caulfield knew that.
 Cruising the Green of Second Avenue is available at Barnes & Noble and other online book sellers. More good stuff at http://allotropiclucubrations.blogspot.com
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Postby Mlou » Thu Dec 21, 2006 9:30 am

Nicely wrapped up, Timberline.
As for Hamill, surely it wouldn't have strained his capacity or time to have penned a short thank you for the appreciation shown for his work. I guess some folks DO grow too big for their britches.
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Postby pengwenn » Thu Dec 21, 2006 11:25 am

Excellent job timberline. I've never read anything by him but after reading that I want to find something and pick it up. Thanks for the review.
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