Fiction – paperback; Back Bay Books; 613 pages; 2004.
Sometimes you pick up a book and get totally swept away by the story that you forgot all sense of time or place. So it was with this critically acclaimed novel by Pete Hamill, the former editor in chief of the New York Post and the New York Daily News.
At 613 pages I expected this hefty tome to last me a couple of weeks but I was so caught up in the life of Cormac O’Connor, an Irish immigrant who lands in New York in 1740 and remains…forever, that I raced through it in less than a week — and even then I tried to draw out the last hundred or so pages because I didn’t want it to end.
I’m not sure how to describe Forever. It’s part swashbuckling adventure, part romance, part historical drama, part fable. It spans more than three centuries and tells the story of a poor rural Irish lad who is granted immortality, as long as he never steps foot off the island of Manhattan. And because part of his deal is to ensure he lives a very full and active life, rather than sitting on the sidelines merely existing, he throws himself into all kinds of situations.
Over the course of some 300 years he witnesses (and sometimes partakes in) many great scenes in history, including the American Revolution and the destruction of the World Trade Centre on 9/11. During this time he also meets and falls in love with several women, learns many different trades, carries out various professions (printer, artist, journalist) and teaches himself a host of languages.
But this is no fairytale. Violence and mayhem follow Cormac throughout the ages, particularly as he is on a quest to avenge his father’s brutal murder. According to Celtic code this means he must not only seek out and kill his father’s murderer, he must also ensure that all of the murderer’s heirs are slain. (I admit that I quietly struggled with this aspect of the storyline, because it seemed too brutal for my liking — and I wanted Cormac, such a well-rounded and likeable character in so many respects, to learn that revenge does not solve anything. I won’t spoil the plot by revealing whether or not he succeeds in achieving his goal.)
What I loved most about Forever is the way in which Hamill has made New York as much a character in the book as any of the people Cormac meets. As time moves on you get to witness changes to the city’s structure, its ethnicity, its politics; you see it grow and change; you discover how it transformed itself from a British outpost for trade and commerce to one of the world’s most glamorous and exciting urban centres. And along the way you meet real characters — good, bad and ugly — from history that shaped the way the city is today.
But the book is not just about Manhattan. To my surprise the first 124 pages are set in Ireland, so you get a brief sense of Celtic history, too.
My only quibble is that Hamill devotes much attention to the 18th and 19th centuries but then skips ahead from 1868 to 2001 in one giant leap. The great technological advances during the 20th century are mentioned only in passing, and all the best bits about New York history — the jazz era, the Great Depression, prohibition, the quest to build taller and taller buildings — are given scant regard. But, on the whole, this does not destroy the magic of this wonderfully entertaining and enlightening story.
Forever is a unique and original tale about history, humanity and the sometimes horrible things people do to each other. But it’s also a story about courage, conviction and how we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past if we do not learn from others who have gone before us. I thoroughly enjoyed it.