Audiobook Review: North River, by Pete Hamill

20 October 2011

I made my first foray into Pete Hamill's work nearly ten years ago (a number that makes me feel old, as young as I am), when I picked up Forever at a local bookstore. I knew nothing about it at the time, beyond the fact that it had a striking cover and was set in New York - a city that I was moving to just months later. I did not know that Hamill is known for writing love letters to his home city into each of his novels, or that Forever would take me through Manhattan's history, from the Dutch to September 11. I certainly did not know that ten years later, it would still be a book that resonated with me.

But that is why we read, is it not? To find the gems that call to us from their bookstore shelves? To find the perfect cover with the perfect subject for this perfect moment? It's all about timing.

Perhaps the timing issue is why it has taken me nearly ten years to return to Pete Hamill, despite my infatuation with Forever. Now that I have spent more than a year away from the city that I called home for all of my college and post-grad years, I find myself returning to the literature of New York -- of which there is no scarce amount. Hamill's North River is just such a novel, this time taking readers (or listeners, as the case may be) back to the grips of the Great Depression in New York.

Dr. James Delaney is our compassionate and kindly and downright likeable protagonist, spending his days caring for the sick of Manhattan's West Village--regardless of their ability to pay him for his services. At home, however, he is both lonely and alone, left by both his wife, who disappeared over two years earlier, and his daughter, who ran off to Mexico with her exotic husband and infant son. When that grandson, now three years old, shows up on his doorstep one snowy night, Delaney's world shifts -- he is no longer alone, he is no longer the center of his own universe, and he must once again learn to show compassion, and even love, to those close to him as well as to his neighbors.

It is this subtle shift in Delaney's character that makes North River as compelling as it is. As Delaney faces down mob bosses, toddler's tantrums and the haunting memories of his own past, the hard core he has built up in himself begins to melt, replaced by a new kind of core, this time built on a new definition of family. These subtleties are perfectly captured by Henry Strozier's smooth and understated narrative, which is at once plodding and mesmerizing. Though North River is not told in the first person, Strozier's narration is perfectly representative of Delaney's even-keeled temperament, his thawing, and his deep-seated compassion for those around him, regardless of the costs to himself.

And as with all of Hamill's novels, North River could not exist without its setting. Delaney interacts with New York as though she was a character herself, and Hamill captures the intricate details of a New York that he knows and loves in a time period in which he can only imagine. Hamill's is the story of the winter winds whipping from the East River into the tenement buildings of SoHo, and the tale of the small but quaint houses that still decorate the twisting, turning streets of the West Village. It is the story of struggling immigrants in 1930s Manhattan, of brothels and whores, of mobs and gangsters and boozing and all of the dangers and thrills and wonders of a city like New York. Those looking for historical fiction will be satisified; those looking for a tale of families and what it is to be loved will be pleased; and those with any interest in the history of New York will be thrilled.

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You might also like:
Forever by Pete Hamill
Tabloid City by Pete Hamill
Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

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Many thanks to the Anne Arundel County Public Library for (as always) having such an excellent collection of audiobooks for my perusal and reading pleasure.

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