How to review a book like Forever, by Pete Hamill, which spans two countries and over 200 YEARS of history?
Okay, so: This guy grows up in Ireland in the 1730s. Some bad stuff happens, and then he makes his way over to America, specifically New York, for vengeance. He becomes friends with a bunch of people, including some slaves. He eventually receives a magical gift: as long as he never leaves the island of Manhattan, he will live forever. So he keeps living and living and seeing the city change and it’s all very historical but in a cool way.
I also think this is the first book I’ve read written by a norteamericano that I’d call magical realism. The first time something magical happened, I was really not into it, because it seemed to come out of nowhere. As I read on, though, Hamill got me to sign on, and soon my reactions were just like, “Oh, she turned into a raven” or “Hey, that’s the guy Cormac first met on the ship he left Ireland on.”
Anyway, Cormac doesn’t just passively watch history, he interacts with it. He fights for General Washington, becomes a friend of Boss Tweed, even meets some jazz greats. By the time he hits year 150, though, you’d think he’d be bored and jaded, or just driven completely insane. But Cormac finds ways to keep his mind and body occupied, ranging from helping to build the underground subway system, to painting, to learning to play piano, to becoming a reporter for a slew of different newspapers, to having relationships with women of varying seriousness.
Now, for my minor complaint: For me, the Ireland part of the book was just an absolute slog to get through. I don’t know why. Hamill is a great writer, and some bits were genuinely interesting, like Cormac’s summers spent with the old, true Irish in the mountains. And the Ireland years set the stage for a lot of supremely important events that take place later. The problem may have been with me, honestly: I knew there was awesome New York City goodness just lying beyond these pages, and I wanted it NOW!
And if I’m honest with myself, I was kind of disappointed with the ending. But I understand why Hamill did what he did.
Really, though, I just wanted more. More early New York history! More run-ins with famous historical figures! The best, most exciting parts of the book for me was the huge swath of the middle section where Cormac is living (and living…and living) in New York and watching it change decade by decade. But then, curses! Hamill jumps from 1878 to 2000 with only a peep about the years in between! I love current New York City, obviously, but Hamill has such a skill for turning early New York into a tangible place that I was kind of sad we made such a large jump to the present. And I have to address this…(highlight because of spoilers…) I really went back and forth over the inclusion of 9/11. On the one hand, it was probably one of the better treatments of it that I’ve read. On the other, it felt a bit jammed in there, though I knew it was coming as soon as Delfina said where she worked.I guess I have to ruminate on it some more. Okay, spoiler over.
A must read for New Yorkers, and anyone who wants to learn about New York City’s history in the least textbook-y way possible. (Listening to “Forever” by Chris Brown while reading not recommended.)
This fulfills the New York Challenge.
Bookwanderer Rating: Four stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: See New York as you’ve never seen it before!
Second Opinions: Has anyone else reviewed Forever? Drop me a link and I’ll add it here.
And just for fun, here are some photos I took last Sunday in Central Park: