Forever, by Pete Hamill
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/13/08
Sometimes a skill that works well in one area, or art, is not as suited for another. That’s my working thesis as to why Pete Hamill’s 2003 novel, Forever, is not as good as some of his shorter fiction, such as the brilliant stories in his terrific collection Tokyo Sketches. Don’t get me wrong. It’s certainly not a bad novel. It’s a good one. Quite a good one, in its best moments. But, it could have been a great one. What is missing from the book is the tautness of reportorial writing- the quality that Hamill has mastered in both short fiction and in his years of pumping out news stories for all the local New York newspapers and magazines, such as the New York Daily News, New York Post, New York Times, The New Yorker, and Newsday. What Forever has too much of is pointless melodrama, which is a drag on an otherwise engaging narrative. Yes, the book, at 608 pages (hardcover) is too long, by about 50%, but most of that 200 or so page excess is all melodrama, and the buildup to it. A good editor could have judiciously pruned many repetitious scenes, cut superfluous digressions, and compressed 250 or so pages to between 10 and 20.
The book’s first couple of hundred pages, which describe its main character’s childhood, and loss of both parents, is excellent. It is set in Ireland and reminds one of the start of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes- save for being two centuries earlier. It also has some commonalities with Martin Scorsese’s film Gangs Of New York, in that one does not picture a gay, green Erin, but a grimy, sweat-soaked, hard-scrabble existence. One almost feels a kinship with Jacob Riis’s How The Other Half Lives- but the rural version. The rich details of the early part of the book are also evocative of the magisterial prose in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. Then, things take a turn for the melodramatic- with wanton murder, bloodlust, an Excalibur-like sword, and voodoo-like beliefs from African shamans. The rest of the book is a solid read, but it never matches the book’s start. And this is not due to the magical realism that allows Cormac O’Connor to live several centuries, and not even for the book’s unfortunate dip into the waters of the in vogue ‘Mystical Negro’ trope (when mystical micks could have sufficed- such as the enigmatic Mary Morrigan character), nor even the largely ahistoric posit of the book- that indentured Irish and slave blacks in 18th Century New York were somehow economic and political allies. No, the culprit that retards Forever’s ascent into the pantheon is simply melodrama. Whenever the book seems ready to click into a higher zone, take off into something special that could be read with zeal a hundred years from now, melodrama bullishly intrudes- be it a mythic ride on his horse named Thunder, or the final scenes of Cormac showing mercy on a descendant of the man who killed his parents, and then reneging on his desire to die, once he’s found the love of his centuries old life- a young Dominican woman, Delfina Citron.
Here is a précis of the tale: Cormac O’Connor was born in Ireland, in the 1720s, but he is called Robert Carson. His clan is neither Catholic nor Protestant. His father’s a pagan and his mother’s a Jew. They have assumed the name Carson- John and Rebecca, but their real names are Fergus and Rebecca O’Connor (née Samuels). Cormac’s youth is idyllic, until one winter his mother is run down by a carriage owned by the Earl of Warren. The rich man pays off his father with ten pounds, as if money can make up for the loss. He and his father must brave the killer winter of 1741, and the famine in its wake, alone. This is a historic reality that is worked well into the tale, and ties Hamill deeply into common Irish themes of loss, despair, death, and perseverance. And it is done with a truly great mix of the poetic lyric and reportorial profane. Then, a few years later, and due to the ridiculous Penal Laws of the day, the Earl and his men stop Cormac and his father, just so they can legally take the family horse, which an Englishman can insist is too pricey for an Irishman to own.
In the encounter, one of the Earl’s men kills Cormac’s father, and the boy is driven to retrieve the horse and seek vengeance by the mystical sword his father has forged, and which he much later loses. His father told him, ‘In our tribe, the murderer must be pursued to the ends of the earth. And his male children, too.’ Of course, Cormac does not behave rationally, and chooses the Dumbest Possible Action- pursuing vengeance rather than not, or there’d be no tale. One can usually tell that a tale is doomed when such a moment occurs, for it means the writer is taking the easy way out, choosing stagey melodrama over organic drama. Along the way, he recalls that his father- after his mother’s death, had told him the family secret re: his father’s and mother’s true religions, and that the family name was not Carson, as he was raised to believe, but O’Connor. Cormac’s dad also was against slavery of Africans, for he felt it too much like what the English had done in Ireland. This is another shoehorned bit of ahistoric reality, and one which far too easily foreshadows the role slavery will play in the tale. Heavyhanded auguries are another flaw in the book. Almost every major plot point, after the first third of the book, is seen dozens or hundreds of pages before.
Cormac also encounters the Earl’s teenaged lover, Bridget Riley, sold into bondage to the Earl by her parents. She turns out to be pregnant with the old man’s child- who will spawn generations of male descendants that Cormac will try to kill, to fulfill his ridiculous tribal blood oath. Yet, he shows mercy to her, and his reasons tip the hat to what will be the penultimate scene in the book, where a similar scenario will play out. Sparing the Earl’s lover, Cormac heads to board a ship to New York City, for he has heard the Earl is traveling there. While there was some earlier melodrama in scenes with a local Gaelic ‘witch’- Mary Morrigan, and in scenes with Thunder and his father’s sword, the scene where Cormac boards the boat is the most over the top yet. Of course, the ship is leaving dock and Cormac gets Thunder to leap across water onto its deck:
The Fury was now about fifteen feet away from the pier head.
Thunder didn’t care.
At the end of the pier, at the end of his frantic gallop, at the end of Ireland, Thunder leaped.
They were suspended high above water.
There was a human roar.
And then Thunder came down hard and splay-legged on the planked deck, skidding in a sliding, scattering rush, then pivoting somehow to avoid going off on the far side.
Even more so, the horse then jumps overboard, and swims back to shore, to reunite with Cormac’s old dog. While certainly an implausible event, in reality, and richly melodramatic- even in this fiction, there is something very moving about the scene, which reminds me of a moment in the Werner Herzog film, Aguirre: The Wrath Of God, where a horse is left behind on a shore, and a feeling of desolation overcomes. It is the one bit of melodrama in the book which was justifiable in the moment, because the break between the Old and New Worlds, and the idea of flying through the air over water, all lend a grand mythos- what Herzog would call an ‘ecstatic truth,’ to the scene. All the rest of the melodrama is, by comparison, cheap, schmaltzy, and far below Hamill’s usual prose and narrative standards.
On board, Cormac pals around with the Africans, and buddies up to a tribal shaman (called a babalawo) named Kongo, of all things. Once they reach New York City, the men stay in touch, and after saving the shaman’s life, and losing his own, he is resurrected, and granted immortality, as long as he never leaves the island of Manhattan. Herein the sort of contrivance that, even in a fantasy novel- which this one becomes, makes little sense, save to give the book a plot twist to keep readers reading when they otherwise might not. Why must he be confined to Manhattan, rather than be free to roam the world and hunt down the male Warrens? Simple. It would negate Hamill’s desire to wax on of Gotham history. Thus, the dictates that flow organically from the tale Hamill has crafted are subverted by his own overweening desire to sing a paean to New York.
This recalls, to me, the way Toni Morrison poorly subverted her own novel Beloved, by sticking to the wan and ridiculous tale of an insane woman haunted by ghosts when she had a potentially great tale emerging about a survivor of the Andersonville Death Camp. Both writers were not confident enough to allow the novel’s own evolving dictates supplant their overall initial aims. This is often manifested by heavyhanded symbolism, infortuitous plot devices- such as a deus ex machina, and other things that kybosh books that have great potential. Even worse is some of the tin pan moralizing that the babalawo requires of the Irish swain: other than never leaving Manhattan, lest he never pass on to the Otherworld, he must make love to a woman marked with spirals in the same cave where Kongo brought him back to life. He must also actively enjoy life, love, music, women, and food. Uh….ok, cue the scary 1930s Universal film music, for this plays out like that era’s idea of tribal Africans and their rituals. It also reeks of the Dumbest Possible Action trope that set him on his path to America, and infects many bad Hollywood films, for there is no real tension nor drama to the bulk of Cormac’s long life, merely the insertion of absurd guidelines. In this way, the tale never flows organically from its characters, and has the feel of a B film plot line, instead. While true that most of life- even of those with normal lifespans, is a relentless slog of dullness, this is not something a work of art need recapitulate in extended detail. Poetic concision can be a great help in these instances.
After Cormac gets to New York, the book becomes a sort of compendium of how quickly the centuries pass. Cormac settles into journalism, and changes jobs every few years. He gets to know the rich and famous, and leads that aforementioned dull life, that gets compressed into several extended episodes. Some critics have called this portion of the novel the Forrest Gump approach to telling such a tale, but this is patently untrue. Cormac does, indeed, get to know George Washington, the infamous Tammany Hall hack William ‘Boss’ Tweed, a few celebrities of the 20th Century, and witnesses 9/11, but that’s about it. Given the fact that he spends a quarter of a millennium in the city, that’s certainly a reasonable enough brushing up against history.
Where the book does unfortunately founder is in its portrayal of race. The aforementioned ‘Mystical Negro’ aspect is especially weighting, but so is the false equation of solidarity between New York’s Irish and black communities. In fact, since free black slave labor was one of the few economic forces that could undercut Irish wages, there was terrible discord between the two groups, including many instances of wanton violence. Not that there could not have been a particularly enlightened Irishman, such as Cormac nor his father, but that we focus in on one of the few enlightened micks lends an air of contrivance to the whole plot. After all, there really is not single reason that the whole of the tale could have remained Irish, with the immortality curse being granted by the mystic Irish woman, Mary Morrigan. The appearance of the slaves, especially in an Irish port, has the distinct reek of PC appeasement. Hamill’s skilled and focused prose guides one past that, but the book never really recovers from such pointless digressions, and, by the end, loses its way.
Hamill has claimed that the book was completed the day before 9/11 happened, and he was ready to send it off to his publisher, but then sat on it for months, before reworking the tragedy into his pages. One might immediately think that the tale’s tanking at the end is because of this last minute revisionism, but it is not so. In fact, the tragedy lends irony and poignancy to the fact that Cormac breaks his murderous tradition of killing the male Warren descendants who come to Manhattan, only to have the scion he spares, Willie Warren (who also, far too conveniently, turns out to be the new owner of his father’s long lost sword), get killed in the Twin Towers.
What the book suffers the most from (putting aside the diegetic
melodrama), is a structural flaw that a good editor could have corrected. I have
seen this ruin potentially great works by authors, as diverse as Toni
Morrison’s aforementioned Beloved and Frank McCourt’s series of
memoirs, and leave them shells of what they could have been. Forever runs
just over 600 pages, and the first part of Cormac’s life (his first three
decades) covers a bit more than a quarter of that. The next few hundred pages
cover almost 250 years, and the narrative unfortunately detaches from its laser
focus on Cormac. The characterization, which till that point, had been excellent
and involving (even if a tad melodramatic), then shrivels into minutia
punctuated by melodramatic moments, and Cormac becomes just a de facto
narrator for the grand flow of history, one of an almost Hugovian sweep.
In an online
review by W. R. Greer, the
Pete Hamill’s story meanders for centuries, becoming an occasion for
name dropping of historical figures and a source of trivia knowledge since
Cormac witnesses every important event in Manhattan’s history. There is no
plot once Cormac is able to live forever, since he purposely avoids any drama in
his life. He even comes to this realization himself, remarking ‘I have this
strange life, but it’s not, in the end, strange at all. There is no plot.
There is only luck and chance.’
Well, yes and no. The fact that the book loses it way at this point is
correct, but not because it lacks plot, and Cormac does not witness every
important event in Manhattan’s history- he, as a journalist, is merely aware
of them, and recounts them in a backwards glance, often compressing celebrities
and huge events and focusing on smaller moments. But because there are too many
detours, digressions on the town and its landmarks,
Dumbest Possible Action tropes, and the heavy hand of foreshadowing- with prior
mentions of terrorism, immigration problems, planes flying about overhead, and
especially when Cormac’s girlfriend gets a job at the World Trade Center, the
tale gives away too much of the obvious to come. The last third of the book,
then, is devoted to the year 2001, and the larger geopolitical problems, as well
as Cormac’s. While the melodramatic love story tanks, the working in of 9/11
is skilled. But, overall, we get a wholly different novel dropped in the middle
of the tale of Cormac, and that middle novel is simply dry, and could actually
have used a bit of Gumpian wryness.
A further problem is that there’s not enough realism- not real realism, in that it’s a fantasy novel, but dramatic realism, wherein, despite the fantastic elements, the characters react to them as if they were truly possible. Yet, despite these flaws- things any good editor would have worked with the writer to correct, Forever is a good, solid novel, and well above most of the crap that the MFA writing mill graduates churn out. In fact, one might argue that- given its fatalism, and its hero’s survival against the weight of history and supernaturalism, that it is a new form of dystopian novel, but one where the Brave New World is not imposed upon a society from without, but felt by an individual within. In this manner, Hamill may have accidentally developed a template that future writers will hone in one and exploit with greater success.
Then there are many bravura touches, even after the first quarter of the book, which lift Forever well above most contemporary novels by hacks like T.C. Boyle, Joyce Carol Oates, or David Foster Wallace. Three have stuck in my consciousness. On page 217, Hamill makes excellent use of parenthetical huzzahs and anaphora in a scene of an oath being taken. This shows that while the macro-structure of the book is anomic, Hamill still retained a firm hand on the innovative micro-structure of some individual scenes. On page 373, there is an excellent digression on Boss Tweed’s definitional difference between bullshit and horseshit. It not only is funny, but gives good insight into that character, as well as the New York and American political rationales for deceit. The final memorable scene that has stuck comes on page 426, when Cormac muses over the publisher’s change of title for a Fyodor Dostoevsky book, with The Possessed renamed Demons. This was an obvious and cynical marketing ploy, a few years ago- just as Marcel Proust’s Remembrance Of Things Past was re-Christened In Search Of Lost Time, done simply so readers might buy both versions for a comparison of the differences. Yet, beyond that, Cormac muses on the novel, which he’d read a century earlier, and there is a nice emotional parallax conveyed. Add in the aforementioned scene of Thunder’s leap of legendry over water, which harkens back to the great descriptions in Robinson Jeffers’ poem Roan Stallion, and the book has a surfeit of great moments and writing.
Yet, it also has too many ill-conceived and wrought melodramatic moments, ripped straight from modern day soap operas, as well as tabloids headlines. The sudden return of the Earl of Warren’s whore, Bridget Riley, in America, is a good example. When Cormac goes to kill Willie Warren, scion of the Warren clan, and Willie asks Cormac to bed his young wife, because he wants her to have a good sex life he cannot provide, it’s the sort of melodrama routine on soap operas and in romance books, but which never happens in real life, nor adult literary fiction. The scene also deflates because we know, from Hamill’s telegraphed buildup, that Cormac is not going to kill Willie. Of course, this act of mercy only makes the impact of Willie’s death on 9/11- when we were expecting Cormac’s girlfriend to die, all the more powerful; but that does not negate the telegraphing, for the power of Willie’s death would have remained- as it is due to the kindness, not whether or not we felt Cormac was going to kill him or not. Then there is the previously mentioned final Fabio-like sex scene, on page 606, which leads to the Twilight Zone-like final scene, where love conquers death (groan).
This hit and miss novel demanded more interiority, not exteriority, from Hamill. The reader loses too much interest in Cormac midway through the book, and by the end, we have little connection between the wizened old sage, at book’s end, and the passionate young man at book’s start. Yes, much of the tale has superbly stellar writing by Hamill, but it also has some pedestrian fare, and it even has a few troughs that flat out stink, such as the telegraphed and melodramatic ending, which, after the survival of Delfina, is unfortunately inevitable in Forever’s universe. All in all, however, the book works, even if it could have been so much more. But it’s the phantom more that pulls the reader to the book’s end, and when its lack is discovered, Forever groans into a mere goodness which, while to others would represent a dramatic rise above the career’s arc, from a writer like Pete Hamill represents a minor disappointment. Such the burdens of the past.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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