The premise — in the mid-1700s, a young New Yorker receives the gift of immortality on the condition that he never leave Manhattan — could go in one of two obvious directions. In a roaring satire, the hero would bitterly record the city’s follies, his eternal misery leavened only by the bargain of his rent-controlled apartment. In an expansive fable, the protagonist might emerge as a Zelig figure, proudly witnessing the ascents of democracy, the Empire State Building, and Madonna.
Pete Hamill’s Forever takes the fabulistic route. The acclaimed journalist, now publishing his ninth novel, has constructed a tabloid epic in a folkloric American style. ”Forever” is a lavish block of Hollywood-worthy wish fulfillment, and its robust sentimentality can seem, at its most excessive, like something out of a children’s tale. At one key moment, Cormac O’Connor, our Irish-born hero, races on horseback to catch his America-bound ship, only to see that he’s missed the boat. It’s 15 feet from the pier head, and the horse takes command: ”At the end of the pier, at the end of his frantic gallop, at the end of Ireland, Thunder leaped.
”They were suspended high above water.
”There was a human roar.”
This is not precisely evidence of a light touch, but what else do you expect a black stallion named Thunder to do? The horse, jumping through a kitsch-tinged atmosphere, lands cleanly on the far shore of Legend. Hamill comes by his breathless grandeur earnestly.
Cormac is going to New York on a revenge mission. In 1737, when he was 9, his mother was struck and killed by a carriage belonging to the Earl of Warren, a villain first ominously glimpsed in the cab of that shining black coach, face sallow and eyes aglitter. When Cormac was 16, his Da died at the hands of one of the Earl’s bigoted henchmen, who took him for a Catholic. In fact, the O’Connors’ inherited faith is ”the Old Religion,” depicted as a Celtic spiritual system of elaborate folktales and soft-focus mysticism. (In a remarkably silly sex scene, the boy loses his virginity to some kind of druidic good witch.) Armed with his father’s sword, driven by his ever-superhuman sense of honor, Cormac hops that boat and tails the Earl to New York.
On board, he befriends two figures who will shape him into a freedom fighter. The bookish Mr. Partridge speaks of starting a printing press in America (”have you read about it? — this case of John Peter Zenger”). A noble savage named Kongo (”’Hel-lo, Cor-mac,’ the African said without smiling”) begins to draw the hero into an uprising of slaves and indentured servants. (Though Hamill uses broad strokes to draw characters and sketch story lines, he thinks about power and empire with some subtlety.) Kongo helps Cormac swiftly dispatch the sinister Earl and, later, employs a brand of magic similar to Cormac’s own beliefs to grant the hero his Manhattan-bound eternal life.
And he’s off: Cormac duly saves George Washington’s life, tangles with heirs of the Earl, and serves as a guide through the vivid filth of New York streets in the 1800s. There is a series of compelling love interests. There is a sympathetic Boss Tweed. There is Madonna. As Cormac enters the 21st century, Hamill falls into the same trap that Salman Rushdie did in his disastrously up-to-the-minute novel ”Fury,” ripping plotlines from the headlines and awkwardly delivering yesterday’s news. When Cormac’s girlfriend calls to say that she got a new job — ”at the World Trade Center!” — you may wince.
Then again, if you’ve made it that far, you’ve been engaged by Hamill’s embrace of archetypal yarns and know to expect a happy ending. ”Forever” is fueled by the cruel dictates of history — corruption, exploitation, murder — but it wholeheartedly celebrates human goodness at every turn. Is there a place for cheery cornball epics? Not only in New York, kids.