Humans have dreamed of eternal life since the beginning of time. From Ponce de Leon's search for the Fountain of Youth to the latest breakthroughs of science and medicine, people have sought to extend life. Imagine if --- instead of being haunted by the knowledge of your own death --- you had the gift of forever? Would it be a blessing or a curse?
Cormac Samuel O'Connor, a poor, yet proud Irish immigrant, finds out in this glorious, ambitious, hugely entertaining novel by Pete Hamill, who for the past 40 years has been one of America's leading journalists.
Cormac grows up with his loving parents in Northern Ireland. When the British Earl of Warren, a slave trader, murders his father, Cormac must avenge his death. He follows the earl to colonial New York, arriving in 1740. On the voyage over, he befriends an African babalawo, or shaman, who is in bondage. Once in New York, Cormac finds that Africans are being sold into slavery at Wall Street. Also auctioned off as indentured servants are Irish immigrants, forced to work in slave-like conditions to pay off their passage to the New World.
What's forever in this book is the fight for justice. Cormac is soon not only on his personal quest, but involved in the New York slave uprising of 1741, a real event which resulted in the hanging of 18 Africans and four Irish. For this, he is rewarded with the gift of eternal life with one big provision --- if he can leaves the island of Manhattan, he will die.
New York is a major character in this book. Through Cormac's eyes, we see the city evolve from a packed, filthy, disease-ridden town right up until 9/11/01. The horror of that day is described with journalistic precision and will make the reader gasp: This is the first serious work of fiction to deal with the attack and its aftermath.
Few writers are more closely associated with one city than Hamill is with New York. FOREVER is his masterpiece --- his tribute to a city he has covered and loved all his life. The writing is lean and hard and finely sculptured: New Yorkers talk with "an accent like a fist," giant buildings at nightfall "are forming a black wall pierced with diamonds."
Our witness, Cormac, call himself a "custodian" of New York's past, "a world now vanished." He is smart and witty and warm. He falls in love often and lives his forever life to the fullest. But he is left with a sense of loneliness and loss. After all, he has buried everybody he ever loved and "dead languages live in my head at all hours."
Music plays in the background throughout this book. From pagan Irish flutes to African drums to the jazz of Duke Ellington and Bird and Miles to Latin rhythms. Jazz and blues underline the sense of loss and regret. "Cormac sees Washington as he always sees him: slashing the air with his own swift sword. And sees Bantu and the others, sees them fighting for the liberty that Washington will not deliver. All of that in a year when he was still too young to know that most great hopes end with a broken heart."
We live in an age of broken hearts. But Hamill, like a great musician, hits just the right notes. He takes Cormac's pain and our collective tragedy and makes them into art, filled with the promise not of eternal life, but eternal love and beauty and justice. This book is like New York --- bursting with life and adventure and the promise of a better future.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on November 1, 2003