By Pete Hamill
Little, Brown & Co., $26.99, 278 pages
Over his many years of writing, Pete Hamill has had three great loves: journalism, New York City and boozing it up. As he explained in “A Drinking Life” (1995), he gave up booze, but, as he proves so artfully in his latest novel, “Tabloid City,” his love for the first two burns as fiercely as ever.
In true journalistic fashion, the story is paramount. It may be told through its many characters, but what happens, not the people involved, is “the wood,” which he tells us is an old newsie’s term for the important story.
This is not to say that Mr. Hamill doesn’t give the reader a large and lively cast; he most certainly does. And they run the gamut from very good to very, very bad. But because he employs a short journal-entry format, switching back and forth among a series of major to minor characters, there’s not much opportunity to develop any of them in depth.
Leading the pack on the side of the angels is 71-year-old Editor-in-Chief Sam Briscoe, manfully trying to save the city’s last afternoon tabloid, the New York World. Sam’s resume sounds like a mashup of Ben Bradlee, Clay Felker, A.J. Leibling and the author himself. His duties include covering wars, writing stories and columns, and putting out the paper. He is handsome, almost erudite (journalists can’t be too cultured, you know), attractive, fair and funny.
The love of Sam’s life is Cynthia Harding, 60, a philanthropist and socialite whom he almost married several decades earlier. When she and her housekeeper are stabbed to death after a fundraiser she gave at home for the public library, the novel shifts into thriller mode, with the previous dominant theme sharing the focus with that of the search for the killer. Will the deaths of two much-loved people be followed by the death of one much-loved newspaper?
Leading the chase is NYPD Officer Ali Watson, a member of the city’s elite Joint Terrorism Task Force. Ali’s sorrow is twofold: His wife, Cynthia Harding’s right-hand woman, was the second victim, and the main suspect is their son, born Malik Watson and now Malik Shahid, a convert to Islam … and radical, jihad terrorism.
But those are just the main characters. The supporting cast, all interestingly sketched (if not deeply drawn), includes Lew Forrest, a once-famous painter now almost blind who still lives in the Chelsea Hotel; Myles Compton, read Bernie Madoff, who is trying to change his identity and escape with his money before his partners find out they’ve been scammed; Sandra Gordon, his sort of girlfriend; Josh Thompson, a badly injured Vietnam veteran whose wife left him (taking their daughter) when she saw he had lost everything from the waist down; and Bobby Fonseca, a young reporter quickly making a name for himself at what is probably a doomed paper. In other words, your usual crowd of New Yorkers.
This framework provides Pete Hamill with an excellent vantage point from which to comment on - and lament over - his beloved city. Along the way, he mentions and describes such familiar places - some gone, some still standing - as: the Cedar Tavern, the Lion’s Head, the aforementioned Chelsea Hotel, P.J. Clarke’s, the Lipstick Building, and the South Street Seaport, with frequent forays into Mr. Hamill’s birthplace, Brooklyn, and its signature bridge (one of the book’s epigrams is from Hart Crane’s “The Bridge,” his magnificent poetic homage). In a sense, this aspect of “Tabloid City” is a continuation of Mr. Hamill’s earlier books, “The Invisible City” and “Downtown, My Manhattan.”
He also comments on, and laments, his equally beloved first profession.
“In the newspapers,” the omniscient narrator observes, “everybody was hurting. The Times. The Tribune Company, McClatchy. The Boston Globe. Gannett. The San Francisco Chronicle. Briscoe didn’t know if anybody really cared, except the people who made the newspapers, the people he loved more than any others.”
He imagines the “three young techies working on the World website in their small uptown office. … Nobody in the city room bothered to read the site. Not even Briscoe.” But they all know that the online version is the sword hanging over the city room.
Briscoe looks down the room and sees the veteran Helen Loomis: “Briscoe has known her since each of them had brown hair. She was flanked by good people, true professionals, but most of them knew she was the best … rewrite man any of them would ever know. Later, the language cops tried to change the title to ‘rewrite person.’ It didn’t work. Too many syllables. Even Helen Loomis described herself, with an ironic smile, as a rewrite man.”
If you love New York, or journalism, you’ll love this book. And if (like me) you love both, you may not be able to put it down until you’ve finished it.
John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.