Fiction – hardcover; Little, Brown; 153 pages; 2005.
Coming in at just over 150 pages, Pete Hamill’s The Gift is a quick-to-read novella set in Brooklyn, New York in the 1950s. The Americans are mired in a war with Korea, and Pete, the first person narrator, is a teenage sailor on leave for the Christmas holidays. It’s a bittersweet return, for as much as he’s happy to see his family again, there are two heartaches he must deal with: the father that he feels does not love him and the girlfriend who has replaced him for another.
In typical Hamill style, the writing is eloquent and the narrative appealing, but having just read his memoir, A Drinking Life, it’s plain to see that this story is actually thinly veiled autobiography. Indeed, The Gift, originally published in 1973, was Hamill’s first novel, and he claims to have written it for his father, a man he wanted to impress in order to win his approval and love.
Taking that on board, and noting that all the characters have the same names as Hamill’s real life family — his mother Anne, his father Billy and so on — it almost feels voyeuristic to read this. It comes across as a kind of love letter to his dad, an Irish immigrant, fond of the drink and handy with his fists, which, at times, threatens to cross the line officially known as schmaltz. The twee cover of a Brooklyn brownstone adorned in Christmas lights doesn’t particularly help.
But, in short, this is a lovely heartfelt book that showcases Hamill’s ear for dialogue, his flair for nostalgia, and his uncanny ability to chart the innermost workings of the human heart with honesty and candour.