June 11, 2012 00:00 By James Eckardt
Special to The
Celebrated columnist Pete Hamill is in full novelist mode for a witty crime yarn
By Pete Hamill
Published by Little Brown, 2011
Available at Amazon.com Reviewed by James Eckardt
Pete Hamill stands in a line of famous New York-Irish newspaper columnists, midway between the great Jimmy Breslin, an octogenarian now, and the current king of the beat, Michael Daly. Breslin made his name with a line-up of Runyoneque characters like the bookie Fat Thomas and the arsonist Marvin the Torch, going on to win a Pulitzer Prize for columns about the Vietnam War and the American civil-rights movement.
Hamill doesn’t have Breslin’s writing chops, but he’s done stalwart duty as a columnist and editor of both New York tabloids. the Daily News and the Post. He was singled out by President Richard Nixon for his “irrational ravings”, which Hamill cheekily used as a title for a collection of his columns.
His most recent success has been “A Drinking Life”, a memoir about the joys and pitfalls of journalistic boozing. Sober now, his literary output has increased to 10 novels.
His latest is “Tabloid City”, the tale of the last day of the New York World. The main character enters at two minutes past midnight:
“Here comes Briscoe, 71 years old, five foot eleven, 182 pounds. He turns a corner into the city room of the last afternoon newspaper in New York. He is the editor-in-chief ... He moves swiftly, from long habit, as if eluding ambush by reporters and editors who might approach him for raises, days off or loans. Or these days, for news about buyouts and layoffs.”
The founder of the paper, the high-powered socialite Elizabeth Elwood, is dead and her feckless son has eyes only for the Internet. In the quiet of the midnight hour, Sam Briscoe contemplates the growing graveyard of newspapers.
“Briscoe didn’t know if anybody really cared, except the people who made newspapers, the people he loved more than any others. In his mind’s eye he sees the three young techies working on the World website in their small uptown office. Culling stories from the newspaper, from the AP and Reuters. Lots of raving blog messages from readers. This just in. Breaking news. Nobody in the city room bothered to read the site. Not even Briscoe. But one man certainly did. The man they all called the FP, the F***g Publisher.”
From the city room, the plot widens hour by hour over the whole city: a legless Iraq War veteran, a socialite political activist, an embittered blogger, a dying artist in the Chelsea Hotel, a runaway financier, a Mexican hotel maid, a black American Muslim convert who wants to become a terrorist bomber, and his police-detective father who’s determined to track him down.
The hero of this novel is New York City: Chelsea, Greenwich Village, the Upper East Side, Park Slope, Sunset Park, the Meatpacking District, South Street Seaport. Biscoe and veteran crime reporter Helen Loomis are bitter about the present and nostalgic for the boisterous, hard-drinking, cynical, romantic, swaggering tabloid heroes of 1950s.
Loomis goes through a mental roll call of the great writers and photographers, concluding: “All gone now, their names mere whispers in the tabloid wars. Too many are dead now. But even the living are MIA. Living in gated communities in Florida or Arizona. Now the photographers use digital cameras and send their images from computers ... They never make it to the city room. There are credit lines in the paper now that she can’t match to a face.”
But the tabloid tradition lives on in a young reporter named Bobby Fonesca and coffeeshop waitress Victoria Collins, who dreams of becoming a reporter. They find themselves on the track of a double murder – guaranteed “wood”, meaning front-page-headline material.
Plot lines and characters converge on a bomb threat at a crowded fund-raiser for the homeless at Aladdin’s Lamp, a new club in the newly trendy Meatpacking District. Bobby Fonseca is still on the case:
“His back to the bar. He sips a beer. Thinking: Still here. Woozy ... Tall women made taller by high spiked heels. Women with impossible breasts. Women giggling, bursting into tequila laughter. The guys all in heat. Some of them sweating. Others talking into female ears. Fonseca thinks: I can almost reach out and grab the lies out of the air.”
This passage points out a major flaw in the novel. The relentless staccato style of the interior monologues of all the characters. High-society ladies and wannabe street terrorists all think the same. Everything in short bursts. Very short. Which can become boring. Very boring.
Nevertheless, this is an exhilarating novel. Pete Hamill knows his newspapers and his New York. And, like the recent death of the News of the World, the death of the fictional New York World is a cause for mourning.