A Review by Leard R. Daughety
How would you like to live on Earth FOREVER? If someone offered you that "gift" would you take it? What would you do with it? Would you live your life differently than you are now? Pete Hamill, the author of A Drinking Life and Why Sinatra Matters, uses his latest novel, Forever, to tell the tale of a young boy who receives the gift of forever life.
Robert Carson is born in
Ireland in 1723. He idolizes his father, a widely respected blacksmith and skilled craftsman. On a visit to Belfast, Robert's mother, Rebecca is trampled to death when she rescues her son from a runaway coach owned by the Earl of Warren. Obeying her wishes, Robert's father buries his wife not in the Protestant cemetery but in the deep woods where their Irish ancestors live. This arouses the suspicion of the local clergy who accuses the Carsons of practicing Catholicism After the burial, Robert's father reveals that the true family name is O'Connor, not Carson and that Robert's name is instead Cormac. In reply to the boy's many questions about their religion and culture, Robert's father underscores the fact that the O'Connors are neither Christians nor Jews nor Catholics by saying "We're Irish, son. We're Irish". Sensing that difficult times lay ahead, Cormac and his father begin to gather extra fuel for the hearth as well as purchasing additional foodstuffs. Cormac's father also takes time from his day to forge a well tempered sword in case the need arises for a weapon. Without little surprise to the reader, the day arrives that Cormac's father is killed by the same Earl of Warren when he refuses to sell the family's horse. All that remains with Cormac is his father's sword, some gold coins, and the Irish folklore that has become his religion. Swearing to take vengeance on the Earl of Warren and all of his descendants, Cormac follows the Earl to the new colony of America, landing at the city of New York.
While on his voyage from Ireland, Cormac gives aid to a group of African slaves. A short time after Cormac has settled into his new life as an apprentice printer, he saves the life of Kongo, an African babalawo during a revolt in which a group of slaves and Irish indentured servants attempt to gain their freedom. Kongo repays Cormac by first assisting him with the revenge murder of the Earl of Warren. Kongo then uses his powers as a babalawo to bestow the gift of forever life upon Cormac. In an intriguing twist, the gift has with it one major geographical limitation. Cormac can continue to live as long as he does not leave New York City. Cormac is also told that he must live his life with honor and with charity to those who are in bondage. Living forever does not mean living without pain or suffering. If he chooses, Cormac can cross over to his Irish ancestral afterlife when he finds and becomes intimate with a dark skinned woman wearing a unique pattern of tattoos.
Through Cormac, Hamill provides a very short, detailed but not always chronological history of the great city of New York. The birth of the new United States, including a meeting with George Washington, the rise of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall, the Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers with their yellow journalism, World Wars I and II are all included.
Cormac's primary occupation over the years is that of a reporter. He also develops a talent for painting and music. O'Connor goes by a number of different names, depending on the need and the occasion. He never obtains a driver's license or a social security number, and best of all, avoids paying any income taxes. Cormac continues to follow the descendants of the Earl. During the early stages of the American Revolution, he murders one of the Earl's sons. Future Warrens quickly reach the conclusion that for some reason New York is not a safe place to live and decide to settle in various other parts of the country.
As the pages went by, I began to wonder if Hamill would connect September 11 to his story. In some ways it almost seemed impossible for him not to do so. A sense of weariness comes over Cormac as he counts the cost of continued life against the knowledge that he has buried too many good friends and will be forced to do so again and again. With renewed effort he starts to earnestly seek for the woman who can be his escape to the otherworld. Another burden is placed on his shoulders when Cormac discovers that William Hancock Warren, the one remaining descendant of the Earl, has taken up residence in the city. The last Mr. Warren has no reason to think that he has now become another man's quarry.
Throughout Hamill's novel, two main themes are constant and not easily ignored. The enslavement of the Irish and the African peoples, along with their culture, combined with the hatred and the responsibility of that enslavement that is held against England and the Protestant church by O'Connor. At times these themes were somewhat distractions and while important, could have been emphasized a little less without depleting the heart of the novel. Too little attention was given to the other cultures that contributed to the character and growth of this great city. For me personally, Hamill's description of the father's blacksmith skills and his tools brought back memories from the early years of my childhood. The relationship between father and son, especially Cormac's habit of calling his father "Da" struck even a deeper cord since my own son, in his preschool years, spoke often of "me and my Da".
Forever is not the typical book that I would read. I read far more non fiction than fiction, except for a few political novels or the latest book by Stuart Woods. I had heard of Hamill's works, which was my initial reason for looking at the book. As I read the book jacket, it makes me think that this story might provide a refreshing, radical change which proved to be true. Perhaps it will for others as well.