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Reviews: Current Books The Tabloid City by Pete Hamill

The Death of a Tabloid

The name Pete Hamill resonates with New Yorkers of a certain age. Born in New York of Irish immigrant parents, Hamill was a high-profile reporter and columnist for the New York Post before his by-lines began gracing the pages of the New York Herald Tribune. In his latest novel, Tabloid City, Hamill displays his familiarity with and fondness for virtually every nook and cranny of the five boroughs. The result is a kaleidoscope portrait of the city today.

Hamill expertly weaves three storylines through his book – the sensational murders of a Greenwich Village socialite named Cynthia Harding and her assistant, Mary Lou Watson; the demise of the fictional New York World, the city’s last afternoon newspaper; and the activities of a radical Muslim extremist, Malik Shahid, as he prepares to blow up the city. Hamill employs a journalistic style to unfold his plot and to depict his characters – a style that is exhilaratingly fast-paced. Section headings state time, character, and exact location within New York; for example, “12:02. Josh Thompson. Madison Avenue and 92nd Street”.

Cynthia Harding is committed to raising money for New York City public libraries. Seventy-one-year-old Sam Briscoe, the well-known editor of the New York World is her lover. Early in the novel Sam is summoned by the World’s new publisher (known throughout the newsroom as the “F. P.” ) who is going to inform Sam that he has decided to turn the paper into a website. Sam muses: “I’m being summoned to the palace by a 28-year-old. The dauphin. A kid who spent two summers here as an intern, couldn’t get a fact straight.”

Anticipating the publisher’s message, Sam knows he will resign. Sam 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.”

Two of Hamill’s storylines intersect when both Cynthia and the World meet death. Ironically Sam must add a four-page wraparound detailing the murders to the final print edition of the World.

It is, however, the third storyline – the one that follows Malik Shahid in his final days – that dominates the novel. Malik’s father, Ali Watson, is a Brooklyn police officer and member of a federal anti-terrorist squad. He is also the husband of Mary Lou Watson, the woman murdered with Cynthia.

Hamill’s minor characters, too, prove engaging. Helen Loomis, an aging, single woman who has been a fixture for decades in the World’s city room, is the quintessential old style journalist. “She comes in every night, always on time, always carrying black coffee and a cheese Danish, always ready to work. And once an hour, she moves to get her coat and goes down to smoke in the howling river winds.”

Hamill doesn’t have to spell it out; he shows us the genuine affection and professional respect flowing between Helen Loomis and Sam Briscoe. Another fully-drawn and likeable character – who is only remotely connected to one of the storylines – is a middle-aged woman from Brooklyn named Consuelo Mendoza. She is an illegal Mexican immigrant who loses her job as an office cleaner.

Josh Thompson has no connection to the three narratives, but the menace he represents throughout the novel is gripping. An angry veteran missing most of his lower body because of injuries sustained in the Iraqi War, he pushes himself around city streets in a wheelchair. Hidden under the rain poncho that covers him is a loaded MAC-10. He intends to use the short-barreled gun to “payback” society. He not only lost limbs; his wife and baby daughter have abandoned him. Rage and the desire for revenge consume him.

Hamill offers us an engaging plot and diverse, true-to-life characters. But it is setting, that third aspect of fiction, that is the real achievement in Tabloid City. Certainly he excels at portraying New York City, the place he loves.