The streets of old New York are getting mighty crowded with fictional characters. Contemporary authors seem more apt than ever to dip into the city's rich past to tell their tales. Among the few who stand out are E.L. Doctorow, Kevin Baker, Caleb Carr, Thomas Kelly - and Pete Hamill.
Tabloid legend Hamill one-upped them all with his last book, "Forever," about a man who is made immortal from the Revolutionary era through Sept. 11 as long as he never leaves Manhattan.
In "North River" (Little, Brown and Company, $25.99), Hamill settles on one year, 1934, and one very mortal protagonist, Dr. James Delaney.
Delaney is an aging World War I vet who devotes himself to treating his often poor neighbors in the West Village. Tough on the outside, he is haunted by the loss of his wife Molly, last seen walking toward the nearby North River (aka the Hudson). He does not know if she is alive or dead.
Two events on New Year's Day set the plot in motion: Delaney helps patch up an old war buddy-turned gangster from a gunshot wound, and his 3-year-old grandson Carlito is left on his doorstep by his daughter, who skipped off to Spain in search of her wayward communist husband. Needing a live-in nanny to help care for the boy, Delaney hires Rose, a tough-cookie Sicilian with her own troubled past.
Will the adorable grandson and the mysterious woman thaw the heart of our hero?
Bet you can guess the answer.
Hamill devotes a lot of pages to the question anyway. Delaney thinks about Rose. The boy says something cute. Delaney thinks about Rose. Gangsters start menacing him. He thinks about getting steam heat installed. The FBI comes snooping after his daughter. He thinks about Rose. He gets steam heat.
Even with likable characters, the domestic scenes crawl a bit. The book really takes off when Delaney hits the town. Times Square, Coney Island, St. Patrick's Cathedral - Hamill gives a you-are-there sense of a city in the grips of the Depression. Especially memorable is a scene of dancers packed into the Roseland Ballroom listening to some skinny Italian kid with a magical singing voice, though even a bicycle ride to the store to pick up the Daily News is a good read in Hamill's hands.
Hamill tells a good yarn and has a knack for drawing empathetic portraits of rogues and rule benders. Delaney is the sort of character you'd like to share a meal with. Not in his house, though maybe on one of the Little Italy streets Hamill evokes so well.