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Tom Chaney: R726: Cent Anni!

Of Writers and Their Books. Book Review by Tom Chaney Cent Anni!. Book review of Forever by Pete Hamil. Review First printed 3 September 2006 in the Hart Co. Herald
The next earlier Tom Chaney Of Writers and Their Books column,Tom Chaney R725: The Help, the book behind the movie

By Tom Chaney

Cent Anni!

In south Philadelphia I once lived on Ninth Street across from an Italian restaurant called Cent Anni. Of course I knew no Italian and wondered about the name. Upon inquiry I learned it was an Italian good wish roughly translated, "May you live a thousand years!"

Now the actual prospect of living for centuries is not entirely attractive. Throughout literature folks have been condemned to eternal life on earth without the blessing of eternal youth. Their lives are generally unbearable after the first century or so.

But Pete Hamill has used the device of a long life to good effect in his 2003 novel Forever, published by Little Brown. I spied the title in a lot of books brought in for trade. My eye was caught in part by the name of the author whose journalism I knew slightly and in part by the cover -- a muted sepia toned skyline of lower Manhattan seen at twilight across the trees of Central Park.

Hamill was born in Brooklyn, N. Y. in 1935, the oldest of seven children of immigrants from Belfast, Northern Ireland. For many he is the embodiment of New York City. He has brought the city to life for millions through his writing for The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The New York Post, The New Yorker, and Newsday. Previously he authored the best selling novel Snow in August and a memoir A Drinking Life.

His love affair with the city is intense and knowledgeable.

Forever begins in Ireland with the young Cormac O'Connor, born outside Belfast in 1723 contemplating his blacksmith father, his mother and their slate-roofed house, and ends as he finds himself apparently middle-aged in New York in the momentous autumn of 2001.

Compared to Methuselah a life of 278 years may seem unduly brief -- generally it is a stretch for the imagination. It certainly requires the reader to follow the advice of William Wordsworth and engage in the "willing suspension of disbelief." But who is better suited to demand that task than an Irish storyteller?

Cormac's family goes by the name of Carson to hide the fact that they are not protestant Irish -- and not Catholic either.

The father "da" is of the old Irish religion whose temples had been taken from them and who were forbade
for many years to worship their strange idols.
They gathered in secret, deep in the dripping glens,
Chanting their prayers before a lichened rock."
from: "The Colony" by John Hewitt, 1950
Cormac's mother is a descendant of the ancient Jews who early came to Ireland. Both parents live below the threshold of usual belief amongst their harsh protestant neighbors.

It comes to pass that Cormac's mother in the act of rescuing him from being trampled beneath the hooves and wheels of the carriage of the arrogant Earl of Warren is herself killed. The earl sends a token of money and a note simply reading "sorry" as payment for the death. Later, "da" is killed by the same earl who steals his fine horse.

Cormac takes refuge in the druidic glen where he is instructed in the nature of the Otherworld and vows to avenge the death of his parents by killing the Earl of Warren and bringing his entire line to destruction. He flees for his life to New York aboard a ship owned by the same Earl of Warren. The ship is a slaver.

On the voyage Cormac befriends the slave Kongo and again upon their arrival in New York. On the voyage he meets Mr. Partridge, a printer looking to set up shop in Eighteenth Century Manhattan.

He becomes a printer and journalist. Kongo introduces him to the Otherworld of his religion and enables him to be granted eternal life and youth with one condition -- that he not cross water. Thus he is bound to Manhattan until he carries out his mission of revenge.

With the bronze sword made by his father's hand Cormac slays the Earl who has removed to his Manhattan mansion.

In the process of revenge he is wed to what may be the central character of the novel -- Manhattan itself.

As the one man who has seen the development of the city from colonial times to the present, Cormac is able to be a part of the continuing history of the island city.

He abets a slave revolt early in the history of the colony. He takes up arms in the Revolution. He defends the black populace during the draft riots of the Civil War. As an activist he turns to the pen to bear witness to social injustice.

Cormac serves Boss Tweed after the war becoming his defender. Tweed provides him with funds and a house.

Cormac is a painter, recording the city and its faces. Having to live below the horizon, as it were, he once confronts in the house of the Warren's one of his own paintings from an earlier time attributed to an unknown artist.

The vision of the city is much akin to that of William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County -- layer by layer revealed as the onion is peeled.

Cormac pursues the Warren family through to the end and in that end sets vengeance aside on the evening of September 10, 2001.

His fate is transformed by the love of a dark lady the following night as the city is destroyed about him."Forever [is] a Shakespearean evocation of the mysteries of time and death, sex and love, character and place. It is both an unforgettable drama and a timeless triumph of storytelling."The reader can hear the echo of the messenger bringing the biblical Job news of great destruction or the cry of Ishmael surviving the ruin of Captain Ahab and the Pequod -- "I, alone, am escaped to tell thee."

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at

Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749. Phone (270) 786-3084. email: Tom Chaney

This copy has two minor revisions not found in the printed version. - Robert Stone

This story was posted on 2011-09-07 06:24:49
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