Peter Hamill, Forever (Little, Brown and Company, 2003)

Pete Hamill's Forever has two main characters. One is Cormac Samuel O'Connor, an Irish boy who grows up believing that his name is Robert Carson until he learns of his secret Jewish and Celtic heritages and the burdens they bear. The other main character is the city of New York, also birthed with a different name and nationality, also a mixture of the impossible dreams and demands of its multi-ethnic heritage.

When Cormac's parents are killed by the Earl of Warren, a casually cruel aristocrat making a fortune in the slave trade, he leaves Ireland for the legendary shores of a land that seems further than the fabled Otherworld where his parents now rest. During the voyage, Cormac befriends an African holy man, a babalawo, being taken to the New World to become a slave. After a riot by the poor against the rich in which Cormac nearly dies, the babalawo gives the Celt eternal life, so that he can fulfill his obligation to avenge the deaths of his parents. But there is a price for the gift: Cormac can never leave the island of Manhattan, and if he tries, he will never reach the Otherworld.

Forever is a novel of the immigrant experience in America — not one immigrant experience, but the waves of change that broke on the shores of New York over the course of nearly three centuries. Cormac arrives in Manhattan looking like one of hundreds of Irish Catholics fleeing the famines, befriending other exiles — speakers of Irish and Yiddish and Yoruba, political rebels and ruffians and escaped slaves. From the time he receives his gift, he cannot remain in any one job or with any one lover for long, lest someone should figure out his secret. Cormac must live freely and relatively invisibly long enough to fulfill the terms of Celtic revenge, which require that he kill every direct male descendant in the Warren family to the end of the line.

But to honor the gift of the babalawo, Cormac also must live a full life. So he learns to sketch women's bodies and play classical piano from a beautiful madam who becomes his most memorable lover; he studies Hebrew and Greek; he sits in on jazz sets with Harlem legends. Though trained by his father to be a blacksmith, Cormac makes his living with the printed word — first as a typesetter, then as a news reporter, and eventually as a pulp novelist. The generosity of a corrupt politician ensures that he will never go hungry or lack for a place to live, and the miracle of his body keeps him safe from cholera, polluted water and the other horrors with which other New Yorkers contend.

As for the city itself, the other great character in this great novel, it can be scented before it can be seen, the odor of sweet earth and human decay. It sounds like Babel, "all the nations of the earth, their languages drifting through the soggy air," and feels filthy ... long before car exhaust and industrial waste, the city's water was filled with shit and smoke blackened the sides of buildings. Cormac expresses alternating feelings of love and rage at this "city of the present tense, an eternal now," which is never a melting pot so much as an amalgam of cultures and personalities that clash and compete with one another as often as they feed off one another and grow strong together.

Yet New York lives a grand romance as well, the rise of the soaring skyline, the hidden spots of parkland in the concrete jungle, particularly the secret history that increasingly only Cormac remembers for even the official histories don't include all the details that his mind has retained. By the time he reaches the modern era, Cormac is anxious to complete his obligations and find his way to the Otherworld. Then he meets a woman who is like the best of New York incarnate, a multi-ethnic lady of secrets who has spiral tattoos rising like the Twin Towers on her skin, whom Cormac believes to be the woman prophesied long before by the babalawo who can free him from the eternal now once his tasks are completed. He and the city move together toward apocalyptic changes and unexpected grace.

It's impossible to categorize Forever in terms of genre, for it is by turns historical fiction, urban fantasy, dystopia, thriller, romance. The tone isn't entirely consistent; some readers may prefer the cynical portrait of George Washington and the Revolution, some may enjoy reading about Cormac's exploits as a friend of Boss Tweed, while some may find that all previous history pales in comparison to the stunning, unforgettable portrayal of 9/11 through the eyes of a man who has already once witnessed New York leveled by fire.

This is an extremely demanding novel to read, often horrifying and emotionally wrenching, from the cruelties of slavery to the horror of epidemics to the agonized panic of the World Trade Center's fall. In the final chapters, as Cormac falls in love with the mysterious Delfina, contemplates murdering popular socialite Willie Warren and wonders whether he has finally reached the end of time, all the reasons for his long existence come into question. In the end, will compassion be stronger than justice? Should Cormac wield his father's sword in anger or in tribute? Can hope be stronger than the brutalities of time? Not only the protagonist but all the people on the blessed isle, the New Jerusalem, must face such questions.

Cormac sees New York "being shaped by a restless unknown hand, a godlike artist who is never satisfied," and jokes that "on the final day, after due warning to the citizens, the god of New York will lift his creation into the sky," the ultimate skyscraper. "'You could see that New York from Africa,'" he tells the babalawo, explaining that he has lived to see all memory, "African, Irish, Italian, Jewish, German, Polish, English, all memory of injury and insult, all nostalgia for lost places and smashed families, all yearning for the past: saw all of it merge into New York." The city of filth and corruption is also the wellspring of the mythology of America.

[Michelle Erica Green]