Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Fiction | Drowning in Eternity

Having a penchant for both sweeping sagas and New York City history, I have kept my husband's copy of Pete Hamill's Forever on my actual, physical to-read shelf through multiple moves across states and storage units. It's always been one of those "I'll get to it eventually" books, so when I had to read a book written by a male author ("a book by a person whose gender is different than yours") for the Read Harder Challenge, this was finally the opportunity.

To sum it up briefly, Forever is the story of an Irishman named Cormac O'Connor who gains immortality to avenge the death of his parents by ending the family line of his father's murderer. But Forever goes into a bit more detail than that and spreads the story out over about 600 pages.

The first 100 or so of them take place in Ireland, setting the stage for Cormac's eventual move to America. Our protagonist is a young man growing up under English rule but secretly learning historic Gaelic religion and myth under his father's tutelage. The pivotal year is 1741 when Cormac's father is thoughtlessly murdered by thugs of the Earl of Warren—a man with no regard for the lives and troubles of others. Cormac had already lost his mother, and this same man was kind of to blame; it was the wheels of the Earl's carriage that ran her over in the streets. So basically, Cormac has a serious vendetta against the Earl of Warren, and, lucky for Cormac, a man from those secret Gaelic rituals bestows upon him the gift of immortality—and with it the opportunity to get revenge.

This quest for revenge brings Cormac to New York City as he follows the Earl to this settlement that is barely a town. —Oh, and that's a criterion of his immortality; he lives forever as long as he doesn't leave the island of Manhattan.— During this quest, we see New York grow from a tiny settlement to a turbulent city torn by war (twice), and a booming metropolis run by questionable characters like Boss Tweed.

I've been excited to read this book for so long because I expected a story that was deeply intertwined with NYC history. In Edward Rutherfurd's New York: The Novel, the city is certainly the main character; we see its evolution through the characters, but they're really secondary to the setting. In Forever, we started with a strong character heavily driven by plot and conflict; then he becomes enmeshed with this other huge character, the city; and once that happens, it loses focus. The timeline jumps around with such huge gaps that it's too inconsistent to be a story about New York; yet it also mostly abandons the main character's initial conflict and motivations, so it loses that thread as well.

The most annoying part of this book is the final section that occurs around 9/11. I've read this tidbit several times, and my husband heard the same from the author himself during a college class visit: The story basically goes that Hamill completed his manuscript, and then 9/11 happened, inspiring him to go back and edit to include this event that would clearly be a defining, monumental piece of the city's history. Valid point, but that's exactly how it feels in reading this book—like a section tagged on at the end that never meshes with the rest of the story and its concept.

Ultimately, I think Forever suffers from a lack of focus; it's trying to do too many things at once, to tell too many stories, when the author needed to just pick a direction and stick with it. I finished this book with the belief that Cormac's story was incomplete and the portrait of the evolving city Hamill was trying to paint, using this theme of immortality, was disappointingly inadequate.

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