Forever, by Pete Hamill
It’s hard finding a description both short and apt enough to summarize Forever, because it is so many things at once. I’ve heard it described as “swashbuckling,” which is true, but ascribes a levity to the narrative that doesn’t really exist. “Whimsical” fails for the same reason. The best word I can find to describe Forever is that it’s very Irish. This is so not just because the story begins in Ireland, but because the story is carried on a particularly Irish undercurrent of longing and sadness.
The reasoning behind this sadness is obvious within the first several chapters – Cormac O’Connor begins the novel as Robert Carson, but is soon apprised of his actual identity by his mother, a Jew masquerading as a Protestant, and his father, who is neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish, but Irish – the old Irish, the kind with its own traditions and beliefs rooted deeply in the country’s soil. The family has been hiding out as the Carsons for years, due to the papist witch-hunts that went on under British rule in the 1700s. Despite their continued efforts to stay under the radar, the O’Connors are soon suspected of being papists. Within several years of each other, Cormac loses both his mother and father – the latter an accident, the former on purpose, but both at the hands of the same man, the Earl of Warren. Cormac promises his father on his deathbed that he will avenge his death (this is where the swashbuckling part comes in), and in so doing, ends up hopping a ship to America to chase after him.
Cormac enters America as the Revolution is just starting to brew, but the revolutionary narrative is told mostly through the stories of people who wouldn’t see actual freedom for almost a century after America declared itself a free and independent nation. Cormac casts his lot in with slaves and indentured servants, remembering his father’s directive to fight against injustice of any kind, and it is this that ultimately changes the course of his life. Without getting too much into the details (most of which sound a little silly, out of context), after doing his best to avenge his father’s death, Cormac finds himself in possession of something approaching eternal life – he will not die, provided he stays on the island of Manhattan. His life will only end when the world ends, at least until he meets a woman with dark spirals (more on this later), at which point he can choose to transition to the Otherworld (Hamill’s word for a sort of heaven within the earth).
After this point, Cormac’s life is told in flashbacks to different periods of time – there is the obligatory revolutionary period, at which point he obviously meets George Washington (Cormac is conveniently placed to meet a lot of historically important people, but to Hamill’s credit, these people are merely side notes, while the main narrative deals with the unsung ordinary people). There is the period of what Hamill calls the miasma, a fascinating look into what urban life was like before water access was a reality for most New Yorkers. As the story continues, the story jumps larger and larger stretches of time, until Cormac finds himself situated within the first year of the new millennium.
Along the way, Cormac’s sadness transitions in very subtle and affecting ways. What started out as a black-and-white sadness, the type that accompanies anger and requires vengeance, slowly transitions into a kind of exhaustion with humanity, the kind of slow drain that comes with burying too many friends and seeing far too many terrible things. Cormac’s perspective here is fascinating, and benefits greatly from Hamill’s seemingly infinite knowledge of New York history. The small political and structural details are clearly the product of years of loving research, made all the better by the fact that Hamill has chosen to highlight history through interactions with small characters instead of historical powerhouses (though he can’t resist mentioning them from time to time, like the best of New York namedroppers).
Typically, however, the period Hamill seems to understand the least is the present, or at least the recent present. Cormac’s version of the Millennium is accurate but ultimately a little hollow, which makes the ending feel false. This is especially disappointing considering the brilliantly subtle build-up to what is essentially literature’s easiest out – pick a beautiful woman. Give her some interesting personality traits. Make her the answer to all the problems.
This isn’t to say it’s worth a read – it definitely is, if for no other reason than that the vivid historical detail will make you look at New York, and your own city, very differently. You might think more about where you’re walking, and what happened there twenty years ago, fifty, one hundred, two hundred and fifty (maybe this is just me, since history is easily accessible in Boston). If it fails a bit in the end, if it doesn’t quite live up to its promises, well, it’s to be expected. And it’s almost endearing, really – Pete Hamill clearly loves his subject matter, and because of this, the best explanation I can come up for the ending is that he loves his city so much that he can’t bear the thought of leaving. So the end must be tacked on hastily, in the happiest possible ending while still maintaining a bit of the old Irish melancholy, the ending that allows for some sort of immortality, for both Cormac and the city. In this way, I’m sure the book was a meditation on Hamill’s own mortality, but let’s not dwell on that. I, at least, chose to dwell instead on the details – the dirty, gritty, gorgeous history of a city, as told through the eyes of a young man slowly absorbing two centuries worth of humanity.