Forever: A Novel – Pete Hammill

In his ninth novel, Forever, Pete Hamill tackles a number of classic themes: the longing for eternal life, the sins of the fathers passed to the sons, humankind’s unremitting quest for freedom, and the existential question of what makes life worth living. He does so in a manner that is graceful, compelling, and instructive.

The novel begins 300 years agoin Ireland, with the child, Robert Carson (whom we will subsequently learn is actually named Cormac O’Connor). Robert is only a few days past his fifth birthday, which is September 9th—the ninth day of the ninth month, his mother explains to him, making nine his “magic number.”

It is when we are shown the beauty and security of “home” through the eyes of a small 18th century Irish boy that Hamill is perhaps at his lyrical best:

There he is, three days after his fifth birthday, standing barefoot upon the wet summer grass. He is staring at the house where he lives: the great good Irish placeof whitewashed walls, long and low, with a dark slate roof glistening in the morning drizzle. Standing there, he knows it will turn pale blue when the sun appears to work its magic.

The boy named Robert Carson loves gazing at that house, basking in its permanence and comfort. On some days, a wisp of smoke rises from the chimney. On other days, the early morning sun throws a golden glaze upon its white fa´┐Żade. It is never the same and always the same. He sees the small windows like tiny eyes in the face of the house, the glass reflecting the rising sun. The front door is mahogany, salvaged from some drowned ship along the shores of the Irish Sea, as tightly fitted in that doorway now as any man could make it. There’s a low half-door too, placed in front of the full mahogany door like a snug wooden apron. During balmy summer days, the large door is always open, welcoming light and air into the house. The breeze pushes smoke from the fire up through the stone chimney.

The boy Robert (Cormac) soon learns that his family lives with secrets, secrets that have to do with an individual’s or a people’s desire to follow a spiritual/philosophical path of one’s choice. Shortly before his mother’s death under the wheels of a carriage belonging to the Earl of Warren—whose wealth comes from the slave trade in America—Cormac is told by his mother that she is (secretly) Jewish. Then, after her death, Cormac’s father tells him the family’s second deadly secret: They are worshipers and practitioners in the Old (Irish) Religion, not the Protestants they present themselves to the world to be. Thus the subterfuge of names.

Cormac grows older, becomes an adolescent, and is initiated into the Old Religion. While he is still in his teens, Cormac’s father, too, is killed by the Earl of Warren—this time in an argument over a horse. And Cormac is told by the priestess of the Old Religion that to join his mother and father in an eternal after-life (the Otherworld), he must avenge his father’s death, to the last living descendent of the Earl. Cormac follows the Earl of Warren to New York, determined to kill him with his father’s sword. He involves himself in a rebellion of Irish servants and African slaves, saving the life of an African priest, who subsequently grants him eternal life—but he must not leave the city of New York. To escape this life sentence without forfeiting his right to join his parents in the Otherworld (and suicide is not allowed) he must wait for a dark woman with spiral tattoos on her body.

The priest, whose name is Kongo, cautions Cormac to truly “live” his gift of eternal life—not merely endure it.

Ah, but there’s the rub. It is at this point that Cormac’s life becomes an allegory not only for the life of every man or woman, but also for the growth and eventual maturity of a new culture, a new form of government, in a new land. We see New York, in all of its periods, vividly and compellingly, through the eyes of Cormac O’Connor—the man who cannot die.

Pete Hamill has spent a lifetime writing about New York, and—among other things—this complex and beautiful novel must surely be his love song to the city. What will undoubtedly become part of urban legend is the fact that Hamill completed forever just days before the World Trade Center catastrophe of September 11, 2001, then promptly rewrote his ending.

– Eva Hunter

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