Pete Hamill grew up in the streets and tenements of immigrant, working-class Brooklyn, NY in the years during and after World War II. He went on to become a columnist, scriptwriter, editor, bestselling novelist and author.
With THE CHRISTMAS KID, Hamill cements his place as one of the greatest American writers who ever lived. This collection of 36 short stories reads like a panoramic novel of a Lost World. It’s a place filled with vitality and nostalgia. The people inhabiting these pages deal with love, loss and fate as best as they can. This is an impossible collection to put down once you start it. It’s Pete Hamill at the absolute top of his game.
And here is the amazing thing about these stories: 33 of them were written and first published in the most impermanent medium of them all --- a newspaper. In the early 1980s Hamill was working as a columnist for New York Daily News. He had the idea of bringing short fiction back to the newspaper. From the vantage point of the vanishing world of newspapers today, the 1980s were something of a Golden Age. Papers actually had their own Sunday supplement magazines. Most independent newspaper Sunday supplements are gone now, additions to “the lost city of memory” in Hamill’s words.
"With THE CHRISTMAS KID, Hamill cements his place as one of the greatest American writers who ever lived. This collection of 36 short stories reads like a panoramic novel of a Lost World.... It’s Pete Hamill at the absolute top of his game."
Yet the stories in THE CHRISTMAS KID are as fresh, relevant and good today as they were the Sunday they first appeared all those years ago. Working within the limitations of a daily paper, Hamill has created fiction that lasted the test of time. He created literature. That is something that could only be done by the greatest of writers.
Despite being written in the early 1980s, these stories resonate both backwards and forwards in time. Hamill captured, in short fiction, the impact of what was happening in the news at the time he was writing and linked it to both past and future events. For example, a soldier who survived D-Day is reminded by a friend that the US was illegally waging war on Nicaragua by mining its harbors. Hamill contrasts here how America had changed between the 1940s and 1980s. We went from what was considered the “good war” to President Reagan’s dirty wars in Central and South America, and that eventually led to the modern-day disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan. We kept fighting wars but lost the “good” along the way, assuming you can ever call a war good. We have become a warrior nation.
Another story deals with the breaking of a strike in a neighborhood factory by shipping the jobs to Mexico, busting the union and tossing the workers out on the street --- something that was just starting in the early Reagan years and now has produced disaster for the working and middle class in this country.
Hamill portrays the place he grew up in: Brooklyn. A small boy with a number tattooed on his wrist suddenly appears on the streets in the months after World War II, and the kids in the neighborhood give him a crash course on his new world. One boy says, “We told him the names of the important things: bat, ball, base; car, street, trolley; house roof, yard, factory; store. Soda. Candy. Cops.”
The unique nostalgia of New York fills these pages --- the nostalgia that still exists to this day. This is the nostalgia of immigrants: people who were once young in a land far away, but know they are destined to grow old and die in this magical place called New York. But in Hamill’s world, the sins of the past have to be paid for, and characters in this volume often find themselves at the end in furnished rooms or bars waiting to pay the price for their pasts. Other characters in this collection suffer from loneliness: lost loves, broken hearts, soldiers killed in someplace called Korea, the Dodgers losing the pennant to the Giants thanks to Bobby Thompson’s “shot heard round the world” in 1951. A man goes into self-imposed isolation and exile by the sea after the love of his life leaves him.
Every story in this collection shares that overwhelming sense of life and poignancy. In page after page, you see the work of a master craftsman. And what is even more amazing is to realize that these stories were written under the inflexible deadline pressure of a newspaper. Hamill writes like the great Sugar Ray Robinson could punch: with incredible power, style and grace. That is why other professional writers study him and consider him a teacher.
We are lucky now to have these stories forever preserved not in a newspaper’s archive where few would see them, but in a book all can enjoy. As people who love words and literature, we are lucky to have Pete Hamill, who is a national treasure. This is a book you must have in your collection.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on November 1, 2012