For over four decades, Pete Hamill has been one of America's greatest writers. He started out as a newspaperman covering the turmoil of the 1960s. But like many great newspapermen who came before him, he proved capable of crossing genres and writing bestselling novels, memoirs and screenplays.
Despite covering too many wars and the great issues of our time, Hamill's ultimate beat has been New York City. He will always be associated with New York. He has written for just about every paper in the city and is the only person who worked as editor of both the New York Post and the New York Daily News.
Last year he released a memoir entitled DOWNTOWN: MY MANHATTAN. Now, coinciding with the release of that book in paperback, Hamill has re-released his second novel, THE GIFT, first published in 1973. Long out of print, THE GIFT is a real treat for readers, especially those who are longtime Hamill fans. Both books, read together, serve as an essential guide to understanding the greatest city in the world.
THE GIFT is a short autobiographical novella about a 17 1/2 year-old sailor named Pete coming home to Brooklyn in 1952 for Christmas leave after boot camp. In his wallet, as the Greyhound bus speeds north towards home through a cold rain in the middle of the night, is a picture of his first love, a girl named Kathleen. Three weeks before, he had received from Kathleen a dreaded "Dear John" letter. He needs to talk to her. Hamill writes:
"The darkness of the bus was punctuated by struck matches and bright washes of light from passing cars, and I stared out at the rain-glossy roads, past the small neat towns and the clumps of dark forest, out past the neon of roadside taverns, past the blue-white glare of gas stations and the bright wilderness of those early 1952 shopping centers, to the place where Kathleen lived, getting there at 60 miles per hour. I was listening for her voice and the sound of her laughter and trying to control what was happening in my stomach as I fought off the anxious knowledge that she might not be there."
Hamill has always been a teacher to the generation of writers and reporters like myself who followed him. And the reason we study him is the tough, understated way he uses words. He has the reporter's eye for detail mixed with a novelist's evocative way of capturing mood, emotion and inner turmoil. Hamill's writing manages to be both economical and personal, much like an early influence on his work, Ernest Hemingway.
In THE GIFT, Hamill puts readers right into the lost world of Brooklyn 1952. "The avenue was lined with four-story tenements whose faces were marred by fire escapes: dark, hard, spiky, rectangular presences through winter nights…" And then he arrives at his Seventh Avenue home: "There were traces of dinner smells in the hall, as if you could chew the air itself. It was almost three."
Pete lives in a tiny apartment with his immigrant parents and four younger brothers and one sister. And as he fears, his homecoming will bring heartbreak. But this is not just a coming-of-age story; it is also the story about New York and the immigrant experience in America. The Brooklyn of young Pete's world, very much like New York today, is a city of neighborhoods and immigrant dreams and decent people worn down by constant struggle and the threat of perpetual poverty. And too often that struggle has been forgotten by the affluent Irish descendent of the immigrants, especially on days like March 17th when it is all green beer and sentimental blarney.
Pete doesn't know his silent father, a man who was a brilliant soccer player as a young man but lost his leg years before when injured on the playing field and nobody owned a car to take him to the hospital. Once there, he had to wait a day to see a doctor with disastrous results. Pete's tired mother has to somehow make ends meet with little money and day-old bread and then "every Christmas there seemed to be one more child to please."
Pete yearns to get close to his father, who retreats every night after work to the bar across the street, Rattigan's, to drink and sing songs about the old country deep into the night. Pete says, "I loved the hard defiance of the Irish songs…But I didn't really know him, and I was certain that he didn't know me…in many ways he was still Irish and I was an American."
Whether it was the Irish on Seventh Avenue in Brooklyn or the Irish of my parents in the Highbridge section of the Bronx, Hamill paints a vivid and accurate description of the lost world of New York. "Nobody could go home in that neighborhood if somebody else had bought the last round; it made for late nights." Or: "They knew that in that neighborhood, you became a cop or a fireman or an ironworker or maybe ended up in the can; you dreamed no large dreams."
And it is the same way today for a new generation of New York immigrants from Ireland or Nigeria or Bangladesh or Haiti or Vietnam. They still struggle to make ends meet each month on these mean streets while making sure that their children are safe and can go further in life than they ever could. This new generation comes here for the same opportunity as their predecessors and the eternal idea of freedom that is America.
And perhaps on a freezing Christmas Eve in 2005, one of these children of the new immigrants, just back from Fallujah or Ramadi, will realize the greatest lasting dream has nothing to do with money or the latest video game. And, like young Pete in 1952, he or she will realize that the greatest gift is the one that lasts a lifetime and can never be taken away.
Pete says of his father, "He was there, still there. He wasn't on relief, he wasn't begging on the subways, he had resisted, he hadn't given up. I touched him and then Red Cioffi yelled from down the bar. 'Hey, Billy, give us a song!'"
Much like New York itself, THE GIFT still works after three decades. This is a beautiful little book, perfect for the holidays. Read both it and DOWNTOWN together, and you will be treated to the work of a young writer just reaching the top of his game and the legendary American writer he became.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on January 22, 2011