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Time played role in planning, writing of Pete Hamill's latest novel

| Sunday, Jan. 26, 2003

Pete Hamill was in a contemplative mood as the end of the 20th century loomed, especially as he celebrated his 60th birthday.

The personal milestone especially contributed to a sense of urgency when Hamill started to write his current novel, "Forever."

"You have that sense of, 'God, there's not going to be enough time,'" says Hamill, who will appear at the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland on Monday as a guest of the Drue Heinz Lectures.

"I always thought there was going to be all the time in the world, and now I won't have enough time to read all those books, to play the piano, to learn to paint, the things that you postpone for the living of a life."

Now 67, Hamill is a longtime chronicler of life in New York City. He has been editor in chief of the New York Post and the New York Daily News, where he still writes columns. His books, including "Why Sinatra Matters" and "A Drinking Life: A Memoir," and novels, especially "Snow in August," are quintessential New York stories.

"Forever" might be Hamill's most adventurous and ambitious work. Spanning 300 years, and set in both Ireland and Manhattan, it's one of those grand fairy tales for adults that gives voice to an age-old dream: If you could live forever, what would you do with your life?

Hamill did have some trepidation about the concept, noting that it's not exactly a fresh idea. The last thing he wanted was for readers to get to the end and think, "It's Mel Brooks' 10,000 year-old man."

But using Manhattan as the anchor for his main character, Cormac O'Connor — he's bound to the island, lest he loses his eternal gift — enabled Hamill to "express some things about the city where I was born and where I have lived most of my life."

"It became a way of passing some things on my to my grandson, passing them on to younger people, who might not know what the city was all about.

"It began to focus on one man's tale and how that tale could be made reasonably plausible by establishing the whole Irish part of the story, where you build a foundation of myth rather than history," Hamill says. "I think once you do that, you can begin to move in other ways in the imagination."

At more than 600 pages, "Forever" could have mimicked its title. Instead, Hamill has fashioned a remarkably breezy tale of destiny and fate. As a young boy in Ireland, Cormac sees his parents die at the hand of the Earl of Warren. A member of a secret Gaelic clan, he is sworn to avenge his parents' death, and follows the earl to America. In New York City, he is given the gift of eternal life by an African slave — who is also a tribal priest — whom he saves in a battle during the Revolutionary War.

Hamill read Irish, African and Latin American myth-based stories before he wrote "Forever." He says the trick to writing a book that contains magical realism is to simply not make a big deal about it.

"Once you set that up, then you have to think about all the possible consequences," Hamill says. "And the one intolerable (consequence) — it wasn't so terrible to me — was to have this amazing gift and be located in Manhattan. You don't go to New Jersey, you can't go to Brooklyn. So you become a Giants fan. And also because New York is this city that changes every 10 or 15 years, it's at least tolerable in terms of the borders and the boredom."

Some of the best sections of "Forever" occur when Cormac's life intersects with historic moments and figures. He fights with George Washington in the Battle of Harlem Heights, meets Gustav Mahler on a park bench, plays jazz with Duke Ellington. An episode with William "Boss" Tweed, of the Tammany Hall era of New York City politics in the mid-1800s, is most illuminating and entertaining. Hamill casts the notorious political powerbroker as a man who used the admittedly corrupt system that was in place to make changes — such as bringing water to the Five Points section in Manhattan — to improve the city.

"He understood the whole notion that there were certain things you had to do if you were going to get anything done," Hamill says.

Hamill finished "Forever" on Sept. 10, 2001. The next day, acts of terrorism changed the fabric of life in the United States, especially in New York City. For the next nine days, he did nothing but cover the story — some of his columns are posted on his Web site, — paying tribute to the resiliency and bravery of his city brethren.

When he finally returned to his novel, Hamill knew that some of the passages had an eerie sort of presentiment. He had placed contemporary Cormac on Duane Street in lower Manhattan, a few blocks away from the World Trade Center. Cormac's girlfriend was working on the 84th floor of the North Tower, and Cormac had lived on Cortland Street, which had been scraped away when the Twin Towers were built.

Naturally, Hamill had to make adjustments, but not as many he thought. The terrible events of 9/11 served to underscore the themes of "Forever."

"Without writing an essay, I was trying to explain this peculiar thing that isn't unique to New York — it's unique to the United States," he says. "It's the forging of this alloy of what we are.

"I've always hated that idea of the melting pot. Who wants to be a fondue• But I do think that the whole story of immigration, roughly from the 1830s on, has been about various strengths that have come to the country and have melded together into an alloy that's tougher than any single metal has ever been. And that's been shown in September 11th and its aftermath.

"It's a toughness and resilience, the ability to stand up and take a blow and get going again, to live. I think that's the heart of this novel in many ways."

Pete Hamill

  • Drue Heinz Lectures.
  • 7:30 p.m. Monday.
  • Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland.
  • $16.
  • (412) 622-8866.

    Writers Read: Pete Hamill

  • He's reading … "A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens. "It's fabulous. Dickens is such a shameless, wonderful writer. He's so good, and I hadn't read it in 40 years. It's part of my project of reading books I thought I read when I was young. Every page of it feels like it's a brand-new book."

  • He's listening to … "Anything Goes: Stephane Grappelli and Yo-Yo Ma Play (Mostly) Cole Porter. "It's a joyous CD."

  • He just saw … "Adaptation." As someone who's been a screenwriter at certain points of a checkered career, I was cheering for it. Whether it worked or not, I still don't know. But I know one thing: I never saw that movie before."

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