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Published: 6/12/2011

A grizzled scribe chases his last story

BY SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS
LOS ANGELES TIMES
Author Pete Hamill at the Skylight Diner in New York in this 2007 file photo. Author Pete Hamill at the Skylight Diner in New York in this 2007 file photo.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge

There's murder and mayhem in Pete Hamill's latest novel, Tabloid City, but the real victim in his book is the print journalism that Hamill knows and loves so well. This ticking time bomb of a novel is about the end of a form of daily storytelling in which America's big cities are like small towns -- their recognizable casts of characters, dramas, and moral struggles playing out on a slightly bigger, more complex stage.

The book centers on the final publication night of the fictional New York World, the city's last afternoon newspaper. The ridiculously young publisher of the World, in his lack of wisdom, is turning the paper into a Web site.

"I'm being summoned to the palace by a twenty-eight-year-old. The dauphin. A kid who spent two summers here as an intern, couldn't get a fact straight," thinks Sam Briscoe, the World's 71-year-old veteran reporter who will quit when the new publisher tells him the news. Doesn't even have to think about it. Briscoe is a creature of the "world of paper itself, and ink, and trucks, and bundles dropped at newsstands. A world that is now shrinking. Under assault from digitalized artillery. The future? Yeah. The ... future."

This is not the book for readers who have spent the last decade saying that Web and print, blog and column can live happily together. Not that Briscoe is convinced anyone really cares if the paper goes the way of all flesh, "except the people who made the newspapers, the people he loved more than any others." But it's the world he's lived in, and wants to live in, until he dies.

Picture this night, the night of the novel, as a map of the city.

Hamill, the son of Irish immigrants, has been a New Yorker and a journalist all his life -- a reporter for the New York Post, a columnist for the New York Herald Tribune, and, briefly, the editor of the New York Post. Hamill moves around the city easily, with a great fondness reminiscent of the writing of Joseph Mitchell -- the late New Yorker writer who is a sacred name at the intersection of New York journalism and literature.

Hamill populates his map with characters: men and women who work at the newspaper, homeless men, Islamic extremists, hedge fund swindlers, socialites, cleaning ladies. The map lights up with movement as Hamill's characters travel around New York, their lives intersecting in ways even they are unaware of.

Of course, this has been done before. Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway with the important personage in the back of a limousine driving through London while Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith walk the city's streets on a collision course as the hour of Clarissa's dinner party approaches; or the characters in Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, whose disparate lives are tied together by the tabloid story of the Coma Baby; or Tom Wolfe's novel The Bonfire of the Vanities in which rich and poor wind around each other in common desperation. In all of these remarkable, urban books, the web grows tighter and tighter around the characters; the density reaches a pitch, a final event.

Hamill's novel is woven through with references to great writers and reporters, such as E.E. Cummings and Martha Gellhorn, witnesses to this and other centuries in American life. Hamill's characters (reporters, policemen, and painters) have inherited a commitment to telling other people's stories, depicting other lives. The smell of the city room is not lost on the young reporter, Bobby Fonseca, as he bleakly contemplates his future. The road to Web world seems thin and wobbly by comparison, altogether less interesting than the disappearing universe of Tabloid City.

There are many plotlines, and Hamill fishes with them all, but it is the story of the policeman searching for his long-lost son that drives the novel forward.

"What always happens at the end is death," Briscoe thinks, and he has reason to believe it. One by one, too many of the characters are murdered, commit suicide, or die in car crashes -- senseless deaths, every one.

The angry veteran from the war in Iraq who has lost his legs (and his wife and child) wants revenge, the suicide bomber with nothing left to lose wants to cleanse the world of sin, the cokehead in the BMW is on a path of self-destruction only he can understand. Briscoe and Helen Loomis and Fonseca have given their lives to tell these stories.

"Going to work where every single day it was something new," Fonseca recalls to his father, "some new story, where I could learn about people, and sudden death, and human pain. Not reading about them. Seeing them. Then telling their stories. I tried to explain to him, Dad, I don't want to be rich, I don't want to be famous, I want to be good. And he said, Why can't you be good at something like banking?"



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