The time machine is every history buff’s fantasy. The prospect of living through any era, seeing the sights, hearing the sounds and answering the questions that have been lost to time gives us all chills of excitement. I’d have no qualms, and neither would any NYC history buffs, if this wish were granted within Manhattan’s 23 square miles.
That is why reading Forever by Pete Hamill has been an enrapturing adventure. This novel, about a man who lives immortally in Manhattan from 1741 to contemporary times, has been my favorite read in (almost) as many years. Hamill’s ability to transport his reader to the most vivid moments in this city’s history is a gift, but it’s his use of magical realism that should attract the less historically-inclined.
Cormac O’Connor lives a simple & complete life with his family in early 18th century Ireland. But after his parents are killed by the Earl of Warren, a manipulative slave trader, Cormac travels to Manhattan to avenge their deaths. There, during the slave revolt of 1741, he saves the life of a babalawo (an African shaman).
For his good deed, the babalawo grants Cormac the gift of immortality with two caveats: one is that he can never leave the island of Manhattan. The other is that he must be a lover of life. This is where my inner romantic bursts with excitement: throughout the ages Cormac becomes a painter, musician, linguist and journalist. He also develops a number of deep relationships with women. Kongo, the babalawo tells him “…to love women, to pleasure them. To make them laugh. To be foolish for them. To protect them. To respect them. To listen to them. They are the lifegivers. To live is to love them…”
To call Cormac’s immortality a gift is difficult, because he views it as a curse. He can never truly love a woman knowing that he will eventually bury her. Sitting in his art studio on Duane Street, he is haunted by the memory of the Countess de Chardon, the head mistress at a bordello where Cormac find refuge during the cholera epidemic of 1835. She teaches him the beauty of music and “pleasures of the flesh,” but they never sleep together, as they know the dangers of true intimacy. Up to the very end, Hamill keeps heartstrings humming as Cormac discovers that the only woman he ever loved is his ticket away from “too much life” and into the Otherworld.
Romantic love is not the only danger which Cormac must steel himself against. One of his best friends throughout the second half of the 19th century is Boss Tweed, the King of Tammany Hall. They brawl through the early days of the Five Points (a neighborhood we tour), they sing the fight song of the Bloody Ould Sixth in Lower East Side saloons (another neighborhood tour), and they keep an eye out for each other during the Draft Riots of the 1860’s (one guess, people). But when Tweed ends up imprisoned and wasting away in The Tombs, Cormac can do little more than bring Tweed ice cream and play their old fight song on the ivories.
Hamill interweaves a tale of vengeance between the stories of this epic, historic novel. Cormac is bound by duty to track down the Warren family line. The ambiguous relationship he develops with the final descendant of the family in 2001 is reason enough to keep the reader on edge. Willie Warren lives in a penthouse on 5th avenue, runs a well-known newspaper, is married to an intriguing wife and owns the sword Cormac carried on his trip to the New World. How each meets their fate will please and surprise you.
Hamill’s fearless depiction of New York’s history made the life of Cormac and the island of Manhattan a vicariously gripping experience. Throughout Forever I was running from the great fire of 1776, getting knocked off my feet by the subway explosion at St. Nicholas Ave and 195th street in 1903, and sitting high up in the air looking down at Cass Gilbert from the top of the Woolworth building in 1913.
Escape from modern life for some time and pick up Forever.
By Jonah Levy