In this issue:
Three for the Beach: Our reviewer confesses that she read straight through North River, completely caught up in Pete Hamill’s lovely writing and in the yarn he has spun. For a read that will make you laugh at the same time you’re shaking your head in recognition, JoeAnn Hart's Addled is it.
And Consider This: If you’re looking for a lively mystery involving a grandmother who still has all her faculties including her sex drive, Relative Danger by June Shaw is for you
by Pete Hamill, ©2007
Published by Little Brown & Co., hardback, 341 pp
Pete Hamill, that all-around fine writer of novels, essays, screenplays and a newspaper column, is quintessentially a New Yorker. His apparently encyclopedic knowledge of his City extends far back into its history, and in North River, he has given us a story set in a most interesting period.
The novel takes place in 1934, when the country was still in the grip of the Great Depression, and Europe was just beginning to fall under the sway of fascism and the Nazi Party. The streets of New York were full of homeless, hungry people, and gangsters had their own methods controlling action in the streets. Italian immigrants were deep into the struggle for survival and assimilation that the Irish had endured fifty years before, and there was little love lost between the two groups.
James Delaney, a doctor with a Johns Hopkins diploma hanging on his wall, has his practice on the lower West Side, near the North River (called the Hudson by the rest of the world). A veteran of World War I, he returned with an injured arm that dashed his plans of becoming a surgeon. He has instead ministered to a widely divergent clientele of gangsters, cops, immigrants who cannot speak English, Chinese prostitutes, neighbors, and just about anybody who shows up at his door. Few can pay him.
Delaney is a man living in an emotional limbo. He has been estranged from his daughter, Grace, since she ran off and married a Mexican revolutionary, and gave birth to a son, Carlos, at the age of sixteen. Then, sixteen months before this story begins, Delaney’s wife, Molly, just walked away one day, and hasn’t been heard from since. She was last seen walking down to the river, and while suicide seems the most probable answer, the doctor cannot be sure whether she is dead or alive.
And then, the doctor comes home one night to find his three-year-old grandson, Carlos, in his vestibule, left there by Grace, who is on her way to Europe in search of her husband. Apparently, he is on the lam because of his revolutionary connections and tactics, and Grace thinks he has fled to Spain, or maybe Russia. The child speaks only a few words of English, and is crying for his mamá, who has left him with only a short letter of explanation to her father.
Delaney, aware that he will need help with the boy, hires Rose Verga, a Sicilian immigrant, to be governess and housekeeper.
Hamill’s depiction of the growing affection among these three is handled masterfully, at a gentle pace and with great sensitivity to all concerned. The child warms his grandfather’s heart, and swiftly attaches himself to Rose as well.
All is not peace and love in Delaney’s life, however. His loyalty to a gangster who is a friend from his army days causes him to run afoul of another particularly dangerous gangster, and his and his family’s lives are suddenly at serious risk.
The book is full of vivid characters with wonderful New York names like “Bootsie” and Eddie Corso and Frankie Botts (aka Frankie Botticelli), all of them gangsters, and Izzy the Atheist, and a stiff FBI agent named Edward Callahan, who gets caught breaking into Delaney’s office without a warrant.
I must confess that I read straight through this book, completely caught up in Hamill’s lovely writing and in the yarn he has spun. It has been a long time since I couldn’t put down a book. I was sorry to see it end. I hope they don’t make it into a movie (although I’m sure they will), because I want to keep my mental images pristine. It’s that kind of story.