|New York, 1660 |
(image: New York Historical Society)
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)|
Which would you?
As Freddie Mercury croons...
Who wants to live forever?