11 September 2012

Who wants to live forever?

For the remembrance of 9/11, I wanted to read something that had this sad day as part of the plot.  A story that shows that New York has endured, and will endure.

New York, 1660
(image: New York Historical Society)
Pete Hamill's Forever is the tale of Cormac O'Connor, an Irish man born in 1728. An English earl (and slaver) kills both Cormac's mother and father and hastily sails for New York.  So Cormac pursues him from Galway to Manhattan to fulfill his Celtic blood oath and avenge their death.  During his miserable voyage, he takes pity on the African men & women caged below-deck in even more deplorable conditions, soon to be sold. 

New York in 1740 is just a village - Manhattan above Wall Street is thickly forested and wild. Cormac maintains his friendships with several of the men who were aboard ship with him (now slaves were sold to New York owners) including Kongo, the babalawo, a shaman.  Cormac had saved Kongo's life aboard ship.  In 1741 Kongo saves Cormac's life, and then offers him immortality, with two conditions: he must really "live," not just "exist," and that he can never leave Manhattan.

If you had all the time in the world, what would you do?

Cormac works as a printer, a common laborer, and as a journalist.  He learns many languages.  He reads and paints.  He builds subways and skyscrapers.  Women enter and depart from his life, only a few are special.  He interacts with artists, thugs, politicians, musicians, actors, activists... he and New York grow up together.
This novel explores religious, racial, socio-economic, even geographic issues... and how they have shaped New York City.  I really liked this book.

Author Pete Hamill is an avid New York City historian.  His descriptions of the growth of Manhattan are wonderful to a history buff like me.  It's hard to imagine Manhattan as anything but a grid of streets and buildings, but it took hundreds of years for the entire island to be urbanized.  For example, I knew the city was dirty, but not HOW dirty.  I didn't know was the terrible reason there wasn't enough clean water:

The major agent of the corruption was called the Manhattan Company.  For decades after the redcoats sailed away, it had controlled all water supply in New York through a corrupt charter.  Even [Aaron] Burr and [Alexander] Hamilton had been allies in the swindle, and its outline was simple. [In 1800] the Manhattan Company was awarded two million American dollars by Albany for this water project.  An intelligent act of faith in the future of the fine little town at the mouth of the Hudson... But the deal had a nasty clause: it allowed the directors to use all unspent moneys for whatever purpose they desired.  Before supplying a drop of water to citizens, they founded a bank.  The aim was to make money.  Or more money.  For themselves, of course, not for the citizens.  So they spent one hundred thousand dollars on water and used the rest of the two million to start their bank.  The Manhattan Bank [emphasis mine]. (p. 313-314)
 As if we didn't already know, corruption and greed on Wall Street are as old as our nation.  They got their foot in the door at the beginning.
Hamill is sympathetic to Bill "Boss" Tweed - his graft was no worse than the rest in the ring, or the politicians he had to pay off in Albany to get anything done in New York (like an aquaduct - finally).  Hamill is sympathetic to madames and their prostitutes, when in the 1800s women had few choices to support themselves.

The supernatural aspects of Cormac's immortality only come into play from time to time.  He doesn't age or die from injuries or illnesses that killed many others, but Hamill writes around and through that.  Even when Cormac is saved by out-and-out magical means, it doesn't disrupt the story.  It's beautiful and mysterious.  We don't want Cormac to die.  I would want to know him.  And it's good to think that there really is magic out there that might enable someone to defy death. (Although, it does remind me a bit of the cult classic Highlander.)

photo courtesy FEMA (public domain)

Pete Hamill finished writing this novel on September 10, 2001.  He was ready to celebrate.  But then the next day happened.  "I told my book editor, 'I need to write more.' I couldn't have a New York novel that had the 1835 fire and the cholera and smallpox epidemics, and not include September 11." (appendix p. 5)

The chapters about 9/11 are beautifully written and sad, frightening, and real, because Hamill actually lived through them.  He was there in the dust, in the crashes and the eerie silence, in the darkness of no electrical power.  In the viceral grief of a city, and a nation.  And it becomes the moment at which Cormac has the choice to finally die and move on to the Otherworld, or keep living.  He has reasons on both sides of the divide. 

Which do you think he chose?

Which would you?

As Freddie Mercury croons...

Who wants to live forever?


  1. I read this book shortly after it came out. I was so moved by it. I've read it a few times. I think I'm on my 3rd copy of it because I loan it out and never get it back. I did buy a new hardcover version of it though to keep......Forever. Such a beautiful book.

  2. I know... this book keeps staying on my mind. You know how some people have those "ancient eyes"? Can you even imagine what Cormac's eyes must look like?