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Pete Hamill's career forged N.Y. tough

Saturday, January 25, 2003

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

The hero in Pete Hamill's ninth novel, "Forever," makes a deal in 1741: He can live forever if he never leaves the isle of Manhattan.

The setup might be seen as a metaphor for Hamill himself, immortality aside, of course.

Born in New York in 1935, he started writing about his hometown for the New York Post in 1960 and soon sported one of the city's best-read bylines, first as a reporter, then as a columnist.

Newspapering in New York being a fast-changing business, he's also cranked out stories for The Times, the Village Voice and now the Daily News.

 
 

Pete Hamill speaks at 7:30 p.m. at the Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland. Tickets are $16, $12 and $7 for students. Phone: 412-622-8866.

   
 

Hamill's still covering NYC. Two years ago, he was at Ground Zero on Sept. 11 and spent nine days covering the story for the Daily News.

And he continues to write a regular column for the paper on whatever catches his fancy.

"I've lasted so long in newspapers in New York, they let me write about anything I want," he said earlier this week.

Hamill was on the phone to talk about his appearance in Pittsburgh Monday at the Drue Heinz Lectures, where the story of "Forever" is bound to come up.

Even though the novel was written by a New York journalist about his city, its origins are nowhere near Herald Square or even a typewriter.

"The book really started in Mexico City in 1957 where I saw a mural by Diego Rivera," Hamill said. "I was studying art there when Diego died and even saw the funeral. It was a big thing in Mexico."

Hamill's first career choice was painting, not journalism. One of his favorite works was Rivera's "A Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park," his vision of major figures in Mexican history including his wife, Frida Kahlo.

"Rivera painted all of these people, saints and villains, with the same affection," he said. "The mural really set the tone for my novel, the attitude that time gives us a healing ability, it allows us to forgive."

Hamill sheds his sympathetic light on the notorious names of New York, including William "Boss" Tweed, the symbol of the city's Gilded Age of political corruption.

"As a novelist, I tried to make Boss Tweed come to life, to make him a whole person, not just the Thomas Nast cartoon," he said. "There was so much more to him."

Hamill's immortal hero, Cormac O'Connor, experiences the growth of a small Dutch settlement into one of the world's major metropolises.

An Irish immigrant and son of a blacksmith, O'Connor's life reflects the emergence of New York's character, Hamill said.

"A blacksmith takes pieces of broken metal and melts them down to make something new, something stronger. I see Manhattan as a kind of forge where that New York style was made."

Hamill, though, rejects the "melting pot" cliche.

"Who wants to be a fondue?" he asked. "I'm not talking melting cheese. What we have made here is an alloy."

The book concludes with the attack on the World Trade Center.

But, can the nation, let alone New Yorkers, grow to forgive Sept. 11?

"It's not so much that we must forgive, but perhaps, we need to put it aside," said Hamill. "I think you learn to go on, to get up every day and go to work. You can't surrender to pessimism.

"What you can do is ask the question, 'What did that tragedy tell us?' "


Bob Hoover can be reached at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.

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