Tuesday, July 03, 2007

'North River' flows again

Shortly after coming to work for the newspaper seven years ago, my boss recommended I read the book "A Drinking Life."

It was a memoir of newspapering, of growing up in New York; basically it was one heck of a coming of age story by a longtime Big Apple newspaper writer and editor.

Thus began my literary love affair with Pete Hamill.

I wasn't drawn so much to Hamill's world (it was alien -- full of clogged city streets and adventures in Mexico) as to his words. To Hamill, like Hemingway, words are precious. You don't waste them. You choose them carefully, treat them with respect.

Hamill returns to his beloved New York -- specifically 1934 Greenwich Village -- in his satisfying new novel, "North River." Named for the old-school moniker for the Hudson, the book centers around kindly physician Dr. Jim Delaney.

Delaney has visible and hidden scars from the Great War. His wife has disappeared. His estranged daughter has left for Spain to find her husband.

But she leaves a bundle on the doorstep. It turns out to be Delaney's 3-year-old grandson Carlito.

Delaney can't raise the boy by himself. He needs help. Enter Rose, the immigrant who learns English by reading the Daily News.

And as he tends to his patients, and learns how to raise a family, Delaney's broken heart begins to mend.

Hamill calls "North River" a love story for adults. And it is, in its fashion.

But it's also, as is Hamill's best work, a love story about New York. You can feel the city come to life in his words. It grabs you, speaks to you, begs you to hear its stories, implores you to ride on its subways a while.

Every geographical area has its poet. Faulkner was Mississippi's. Larry McMurtry is North Central Texas'. And, above everyone else -- all those famous names -- Pete Hamill is New York's laureate.

"North River" is a good read. It's a heartwarming story, full of life and renewal and all those things readers feel satisfied about when the final page is turned.

You feel fortunate to spend a day or two with such a fine wordsmith. And when the journey's over, you feel alone, yes, but thankful such a talent has allowed you to roam around in his fictional world.

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