Bright light, big city


INTERVIEW:Pete Hamill – newspaperman, novelist, essayist, critic, editor, screenwriter, Grammy award-winner – can now add crime writer to his curriculum vitae, writes GEORGE KIMBALL, long-time friend of the legendary New Yorker

THE SENSATIONAL CRIME that serves as the tent-pole for the plot of Pete Hamill’s new novel Tabloid Cityis one Hamill has described as “a tabloid editor’s wet dream” – a grisly double-murder at a “good” address following a high-society soiree attended by several of New York’s more prominent citizens.

Although the crime occurs in the wee hours of the morning, after the next day’s New York World has been put to bed, its editor, Sam Briscoe, issues an order to stop the presses and augment the final edition with a wraparound front page headlined “THE LAST DINNER PARTY”.

Pete Hamill has so frequently been described as “the quintessential New York newspaperman” that an entire generation probably thinks Q is his middle initial. (The critic Eric Alterman, further struggling for definition, once called him “tabloid journalism’s original renaissance man”.)

Journalist, novelist, essayist, critic, screenwriter and educator, Hamill even has a Grammy on his trophy shelf, for his liner notes to Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. A few months ago, New York University, where he has served for half a dozen years as distinguished writer-in-residence, apparently decided that a man who wore so many hats could use a second chair, and added the Jacob K Javits visiting professorship to his portfolio.

The one-time bon vivant, who once squired the likes of Shirley MacLaine, Linda Ronstadt, and Jacqueline Onassis about town, has long settled into a life of personal domesticity – he has been married to Japanese journalist Fukiko Aoki for nearly a quarter of a century. Along the way, he has assumed, rather seamlessly, the role of éminence gris in the New York literary firmament.

Indeed, Hamill’s 20 books include 11 novels, three collections of his journalism, two books of short stories, a biography of the Mexican painter Diego Rivera, and his acclaimed memoir A Drinking Life,but since the dawn of the present millennium he has focused his attention on the motif he knows best – the Big Apple.

In Downtown: My Manhattan, a 2004 book that was part travelogue and part memoir, the Brooklyn-born Hamill explored the tapestry of the island he has called home for half a century, while his novels Forever (2003)and North River(2007) relied on his extensive accumulation of knowledge of both New York history and the immigrant experience.

Tabloid Citymay be the most ambitious of all, taking place in a frenetic 24-hour period in 2009, as seen through the eyes of a disparate cast of characters as they hurtle toward an apocalyptic convergence.

The seemingly scattershot pastiche of points of view was intentional, says Hamill. “I wanted the book to reflect the lean, quick-hit style of a tabloid, where less is often more. Once I’d finished, I tried to make that effect even more pronounced: I went back and cut another 100 pages out of the manuscript.”

The major character, Briscoe, is the 71-year-old editor of the New York World, a hard-bitten, old-school newspaperman who has spent a lifetime in journalism. Since Hamill, who was 71 in 2009, is former editor-in-chief of New York’s extant tabloids, the Postand the Daily News, many readers and not a few reviewers have leapt to the assumption that Briscoe is a thinly disguised version of the author. While they share many characteristics, says Hamill, he is not Sam Briscoe – and Briscoe is not Pete Hamill.

“Briscoe is half-Jewish, named in homage to the one-time lord mayor of Dublin,” says Hamill. “My parents were Belfast Catholics. His roots are in Manhattan, mine in Brooklyn. He lives alone, while I have lived for almost 25 years with my wife Fukiko. He worked for the Paris Herald-Tribune; I never did, although I did drop in to use a typewriter there a few times. But there are other things – Briscoe, for instance, definitely has my bookshelves, arranged like tenements.”

Briscoe also reflects many Hamill sensibilities when he allows, as he often does, his thoughts to wander back through the world of New York newspapers over the latter half of the 20th century, to fallen comrades and bygone saloons.

But those familiar with his CV will recognise that Sam Briscoe isn’t the only Hamill alter ego roaming the streets of Tabloid City.

Lew Forrest, the near-blind artist living out his days at the Chelsea Hotel, the famed bohemian haunt where Hamill once resided, and Beverly Starr, the cutting-edge cartoonist, also share elements of the author’s history; as a young man, Hamill aspired to a career as a cartoonist, and later, as a painter.

“It was only after I failed at those that I turned to writing,” he says. “In certain ways those characters helped me live the possible lives I had envisioned for myself when I was 20,” admits Hamill. “When I was in the navy, I wanted to go to Paris and the Académie Julian. I never did. Mexico City took me instead.”

Instead he wound up serving as the art director for a Greek-language paper called Atlantis, which published a monthly magazine of the same name. Hamill talked his way into writing a piece. His maiden effort was a profile of his friend José Torres, then a neophyte middleweight but eventually the world light-heavyweight champion. Hamill eventually attracted enough attention to land himself a job at the pre-Murdoch Post.

“Within a year I was a full-time reporter,” he says. “In 1962 I wrote a series about 42nd Street called Welcome to Lostville. One result was that the young Bob Dylan read it and invited me to his first concert at Town Hall; the result was a kind of friendship that years later led to my liner notes for Blood on the Tracks.

“In the summer, when Al Buck went on vacation, I’d fill in as the boxing writer,” says Hamill. “Later in 1962 I went to Chicago to cover the first Patterson-Liston fight. The publicist Harold Conrad had invited a number of literary types, so in the press room you had AJ Liebling and Jimmy Cannon and Budd Schulberg over here, and over there, the likes of Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, George Plimpton, Nelson Algren, Ben Hecht, and an English novelist named Gerald Kersh. Kersh had these deep-set eyes, a hooked nose, and a bushy beard that swept, horizontally, straight away from his face. Cannon took one look at him and said, ‘That guy looks like a rat peering out of a bear’s ass.’

“Until I started working there I never even read the Post. It was a tabloid, but it was politically the most liberal of the seven New York dailies at the time, and it was seventh in circulation.

“But it was a fascinating place to work. Dorothy Schiff was the owner and publisher, so the Postwas way ahead of its time when it came to gender issues. Women who worked for the other New York dailies, including the Times, were shunted off to the ‘women’s pages’ – the style section, or the homemaking page – but even in the early 1960s the Posthad female reporters like Norah Ephron covering the important stuff like murders and politics.”

The dynamic in Tabloid Citybetween Briscoe and Bobby Fonseca, the young hotshot reporter the gruff old editor turns loose on the big story, suggests Hamill’s own history in the business, echoing both his relationship with Paul Sann, the Posteditor who in the 1960s made him into a columnist and then into a star, and Hamill’s subsequent encouragement of younger writers during his own editorial tenures at the Postand the Daily News.

“I learned from Sann and others that the best editors are teachers, in the positive sense of that word,” he says. “They don’t do their jobs to prove that they have power; they just want the work to be better. They learned their craft the hard way and they want to pass it on to the young. I hope we can hold on to that tradition, which probably goes all the way back to the guild shops of the Renaissance. I like to say that journalism is the graduate school from which you never graduate.”

The impending demise, or at least the erosion, of traditional journalism is a dominant theme of Tabloid City.

At a meeting the morning after the murders, the World’s 28-year-old publisher has some more unsettling news for Briscoe: he intends to euthanise the paper, and the extra edition with the story of the murders will be the World’s last. But, he adds cheerfully, it will continue in an online format, and he’d like Sam to stay on as editor of the web version. Briscoe, whose veins course with newspaper ink, unhesitatingly declines, as surely as would have Pete Hamill.

“Obviously, I find the continuing disappearance of the American newspaper a depressing trend,” he says, “but at the same time I understand why it’s happening. Something like 70 per cent of a newspaper’s costs today goes to materials, production, and distribution, and only about 30 per cent to the editors and journalists who put it out. Producing an online version costs next to nothing, so the web would seem a viable way for journalists to keep working – and to be paid for it.”

Hamill provides each of the villains in his book with humanising qualities that explain their misguided motivation, which is more than can be said for one particular character, Freddie Wheeler, a laid-off former newspaperman-turned-blogger. Wheeler, who operates a poisonous scandal-sheet website that may represent the death of journalism as we know it (or perhaps the future of journalism as we don’t), is apparently devoid of any principle save schadenfreude.

“That was absolutely intentional,” says Hamill. “I didn’t have any real-life counterpart in mind, but nastiness and snarkiness are both alive and thriving on the web.”

But then Hamill (possibly because during his MacLaine/Ronstadt/Jackie O phase his own name turned up so frequently in gossip columns) has always been scornful when it comes to the journalistic merits of celebrity-based pap. When he took over the reins at the Daily News 15 years ago, one of his first acts was the elimination of popular “Hot Copy” columnists AJ Benza and Michael Lewittes.

“We have too much gossip, and not enough people to gossip about,” he said, in announcing that celebrities could henceforth expect to read their names in the paper “only if they die, get shot, or shoot their wives”.

Introducing Hamill at a symposium celebrating the publication of Tabloid Citya few weeks ago, fellow writer Adam Gopnik alluded to Tabloid City’s“recurrent theme of loneliness”, but he was quickly corrected by Hamill. While most of the novel’s characters do fly solo, some do so by choice.

“I would draw the distinction between loneliness and solitude,” says Hamill. “Many of us, particularly writers and artists, cherish our solitude.” He and Fukiko maintain separate working quarters in their Tribeca loft.

“Many people adjust to being alone by embracing solitude, rather than surrendering to loneliness, and there’s something almost ennobling about that. With a good book in the house, you’re never alone. But since being alone – at least in my opinion – can be most difficult at night, some people fill their nights with work.”

The denouement of Tabloid Cityarrives when the cast of characters arrives at a trendy Greenwich Village nightclub that is hosting a gala benefit. Even the bad guys are there in force, including Josh, a crippled Iraq veteran, and Malik, a jihadist. Both have chosen to bomb the venue.

“For Josh, it’s about payback; for Malik, it’s about belief,” says Hamill. “This is a novel, remember, not an essay, but if I’ve learned anything in the last 50 years, it’s that both mindsets lead to corpses – and sometimes a lot of them. As a descendant of Belfast, I never needed to puzzle very much over the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. Over centuries, secular beliefs, tied to utopian visions, have produced mounds of the dead. I prefer to invoke EM Forster’s line on the subject: ‘I do not believe in belief.’ ”

Malik Shahid might pray for the souls of the September 11th terrorists in Tabloid City, but Sam Briscoe honours departed icons of his own. He has, for instance, turned his newspaper’s lobby into a veritable monument to 20th-century American journalism. And when Briscoe allows his thoughts to wander, he nostalgically hearkens back to nights in the Lion’s Head and Bleeck’s, PJ Clarke’s and the Deux Magots, invoking the names of actual journalistic colleagues who might have been on the next bar stool at one saloon or the other.

“I’ve been accused of sentimentality, but, in general, I’ve never had the ambition to write a bitter, narrow, sullen novel about anyone, or to even old scores,” says Hamill. “I’ve met too many fundamentally decent people – including the sinners. At the same time, I always try to draw a distinction between nostalgia and sentimentality,” he elaborates.

“The first is a genuine evocation of lost times, lost friends and lost places. Sentimentality is the performance of regret – a gooey embrace of a reality you’ve never experienced, but wish you had. It’s no accident, for instance, that many right-wing movements like the Tea Party have a sentimental core. But New York is a dynamic city, always changing, never a museum. You go away for a month, and when you return your favourite coffee shop is gone and its presence is being hammered off the wall. Times Square today is so charmless that I think of it as Area Code 800, but it’s hard to be nostalgic about the place. 42nd Street wasn’t so great back when there were guys on every corner selling heroin like candy bars, either.”

Even though the major characters of Tabloid City experience misfortune that would rival the trials of Job, the book exudes a subtle undercurrent of hope that would seem to reflect New York’s defiance in the aftermath of 9/11.

“Even at our low points – during the crack epidemic that claimed an entire generation of our youth, for example – I’ve always been a reasonably optimistic man,” says Hamill. “Remember, I was born in the Depression; I was 10 when the war ended and a flood of optimism surged through New York. The returning veterans had the GI bill, which in turn offered upward mobility, and anything seemed possible. Then came the 1960s which, at their best, were infused with hope and its brother, optimism. I soon adopted as my personal mantra a phrase from the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci: ‘Optimism of the will; pessimism of the intelligence.’ ”

And sometimes life imitates art. After he is informed of the World’s imminent demise, Briscoe makes a list of priority phone calls he must make. The first is to his daughter, in Paris; the second is to “Haberman at the Times”.

Last month, with copies of Tabloid City already in reviewers’ hands, the New York Timesaxed Clyde Haberman’s widely admired NYC column. The spurious move seemed nonsensical to Hamill who, like many New Yorkers, considered NYC essential reading.

A few weeks later – and two days after the May 2nd publication date of Tabloid City – the Times announced that, effective immediately, a new column by Haberman would be appearing four times a week.

But only in the paper’s online edition.

The author of Four Kings, Manly Art, and At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing(which he co-edited with John Schulian), George Kimball writes the America at Large column for The Irish Times. He and Pete Hamill have known one another for nearly 45 years, since, says Hamill, “we did our postgraduate studies together at the University of the Lion’s Head”.