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 disappeared in this country since 1990.
There have been plenty of books and articles written about the role of technology, advertising and circulation in the decline of newspapers. But Hamill reveals the toll on human beings. He writes of one character, Helen Loomis, now old and at the end of the line: "[She] was only one of many great reporters he'd known who were drawn to the rowdy newspaper trade because of the arching solitude of their own lives. Their pain was dwarfed by the more drastic pain of strangers. As bad as your life might be, there were all kinds of people out there in the city who were in much worse shape."
In a book that could have been 1,000 pages long, Hamill tells his story in 278 pages of the leanest, most economical writing you will ever read. His words are not just written, they are seemingly chiseled on the page --- refined and polished, and filled with meaning, beauty and emotion. Consider: "A siren wakes him. An ambulance for sure. The soprano sax of emergency." Hamill brings to life the richness and loneliness of New York City. If this is a thriller, it is a thriller with a heart. If is a noir, it is a noir with hope. Hamill weaves it all together like a jazz solo in the night.
As another example, Helen Loomis looks out the window of her lonely apartment on Second Avenue and 9th Street at 2AM: "Across the street, under an awning, she sees Federico the mambo dancer. It is his time, and he is dancing. She knows he is seventy-two, knows that his wife is dead, his two daughters living in Miami, one grandson serving in Afghanistan. He should be too old for this. But Federico surges with life. He wears a woven straw hat, a Mets jacket, polished boots with lifts. Wires feed into his ears from a machine strapped to his chest. The wires give him Tito Puente. They give him Machito…. They give him the Palladium on Broadway in 1958…. He dances alone on the avenue with the precision and lightness of a twenty-year old. He never looks for applause. He doesn't ask for loose change. He doesn't flirt. He dances for himself. He dances to avoid going home to the apartment where the only resident is himself. He dances to ward off loneliness."
Pete Hamill captures the tough fatalism of New York. Wars and murders and thieves and Depressions and Great Recessions and nitwits with bombs may come and go. The city is always on the brink of apocalypse, always going to hell. But it never gets there because somewhere on some street, there is a guy doing the mambo by himself at 2AM. This is a city that can never be destroyed by stupidity. It is too alive for that. Hamill has written a masterpiece called TABLOID CITY. Do yourself a favor and read it. You will not be disappointed.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on May 16, 2011