Pete Hamill’s North River mixes atmospheric historical novel with thoughtful middle-age romance, family tragedy with a dash of criminal suspense. The setting is the waning days of the Tammany Hall machine in the Manhattan neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen. Doctor Jim Delaney went to WWI out of a sense of duty. He suffered a career threatening injury and saw a lot of rough things, then returned home to find that his parents had died in the great flu epidemic and his wife had lost patience with their marriage while he was away. As the novel opens, middle age has landed squarely on Delaney’s tired back. It is 1934, and his wife has disappeared, maybe a suicide, maybe just a runaway. Delaney is shocked from his long-term mourning and wondering when his troubled daughter leaves a three-year-old grandson who doesn’t speak English on Delaney’s doorstep while she searches for herself and for her revolutionary husband in Spain.
Also early in the novel, Delaney makes two more fateful decisions. To help him take care of the boy, he brings a 30-something Italian woman, Rose Verga, into his household. She’s attractive in a solid way, but brings the baggage of a troubled past. Delaney also helps an old war friend, now a gangster, survive an attack, thus invoking the enmity of a rival gang.
Delaney is a likeable character, the kind of dependable but world-weary man on whom a neighborhood depends, especially in an era where dangers are plentiful and doctors making housecalls are the best defense for down-on-their-luck people. The novel is full of mild suspense. Will Delaney’s wife or daughter come home? Should he pursue Rose instead? Could such a romance survive differences of age, ethnicity, and class? What will be best for the boy? And will everyone make it safely through the violence of mobsters, the machinations of local politics? While those questions drive the story at a steady pace, the real focus here is on believable characters in a setting that Hamill clearly loves, and brings vividly to life. I’ve read many books set in New York City in this era, but none has brought the time and place so clearly back into being.
If you should have access to the audiobook, read by Henry Strozier, I recommend it highly. Strozier finds the perfect tone for the tale.
Hamill himself is a fascinating character, a man who has worked in steel yards, the Navy, and graphic design, then turned relatively late in life to journalism and then fiction. Any of his novels or nonfiction pieces look to be worthy material for book groups. I know after finally picking up North River, I’ll be back for more.