Once in a while, a book comes along that not only defines its time but also transcends it. That is the best way to describe TABLOID CITY by Pete Hamill, the best book of 2011 thus far. Over the last decade, in books like FOREVER, NORTH RIVER and now TABLOID CITY, Hamill has proven that he is one of America's greatest novelists --- indeed, one of the greatest writers America has ever produced. And in all three titles, the central character is, ultimately, the greatest city in the world, New York.
No writer is more identified with a city than Hamill is with his native New York. A legendary newspaperman and journalist, he is the only person to have edited both New York tabloids --- the New York Daily News and the New York Post. (And the definition of tabloid here is not to be confused with the celebrity junk found in your supermarket. Big-city tabloids were a noble addition to the mosaic of big-city newspapers.)
Great novelists, like poets and painters, have the uncanny ability to capture the zeitgeist of their times. And on a week when the news is dominated by grim images of terror, one of the characters in TABLOID CITY is a religiously damaged and hate-filled young fanatic wandering the city in a suicide vest looking for a target of opportunity and deluded enough to think his crime will be his MetroCard into paradise. But to say TABLOID CITY is about terrorism would be like saying that Picasso's"Guernica" is about international relations. The book is also a thriller, a noir masterpiece and an accurate account of the demise of newspaper journalism.
Consider some of the characters. There is a socialite who raises money for libraries and is brutally murdered in her exclusive Greenwich Village townhouse, along with her secretary who is married to a cop working on the terrorism squad. There is a hedge fund thief about to flee forever with his loot; he is leaving behind the woman who loves him and trying to avoid some people he should not have swindled. There is an illegal immigrant from Mexico about to lose her custodial job because of the crash of the economy. There is the blinded painter living in the famed Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street; he once painted and had an affair with that same Mexican woman. There is an Iraq vet who lost his entire lower body in the senseless war and now roams the street in the freezing rain, a loaded MAC-10 pistol in his wheelchair, as he seethes with hate and looks for payback.
The novelist Evan Hunter told me years ago that a mystery needs a body or somebody about to become a body, and TABLOID CITY has both. About to become a body is The New York World, the last PM newspaper in New York City, and the last link to a time when New York was home to dozens of daily papers. Hamill takes 13 different characters and makes them interact and collide with each other over a 24-hour period where the tension never stops building as a killer is sought and a terrorist is about to strike.
At the center of the story is Sam Briscoe, the 71-year-old editor of the paper, which is about to be shut down. Sam comes out of "a world of paper itself, and ink, and trucks, and bundles dropped at newsstands. A world that is now shrinking. Under assault from the digital artillery. The future? Yeah. The goddamned future." With the death of The World, Hamill has tapped into the current zeitgeist. According to the Paper Cuts blog, which lists layoffs and newspaper closings, some 183 newspapers closed their doors and ended their print editions forever in just two years: 2009 and 2010. In 2008, some 15,992 reporters and editors lost their jobs. Overall, a quarter of all reporting jobs have disappeare