New York City is never merely a setting in Pete Hamill's novels. It is a pulsing, protean entity, both event and catalyst, and he reserves for it the reverence of a man describing a lifetime love affair. It was the backdrop, most notably, for the studiously ambitious Forever, and for his wondrous memoir, A Drinking Life. So it is no surprise that Hamill's city, specifically the area on the West Side just south of the demarcating 14th Street, is the stomping ground for North River, his latest paean to his home turf. North River is the story of Dr. James Delaney, a middle-aged Depression-era sawbones who pays house calls to gangsters and grandees alike without favor. Scarred by the war, the disappearance of his wife and the absence of his headstrong daughter, Delaney lives only for his patients. At least until his daughter abandons her 3-year-old son inside Delaney's door one day when he is out. The boy, named Carlos called Carlito spurs emotions long since forgotten. Slowly, the doctor puts his luckless past behind him and begins to live again. Still, it isn't all clear sailing. Delaney winds up in the middle of a deadly gang war. Also, the gnawing fear that his daughter will return and take away his beloved grandson is always at the back of his mind. But despite it all, the reader never actually fears something bad will happen. Hamill clearly loves his creations too much to do them harm.
For those afraid Hamill has taken geographical liberties trust me, there is no river just north of the West Village you can rest easy. It's just the author playing the pedagogue. The North River is the original Dutch name for the Hudson River, the city's western boundary. North River is like comfort food. You won't find many surprises. The characters stay within the narrow confines that Hamill has laid for them like grids of the uptown streets he avoids. But reading North River is like you would imagine a crosstown walk with Hamill to be even though you know exactly where you're going, it's still a fun trip. Ian Schwartz recently moved from New York City to San Diego.