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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

BPL Book Discussion: North River

This week at BPL we discussed Pete Hamill's North River. I also wrote about reading this novel in June of 2008 here.

Pete Hamill is an accomplished, if not quite bestselling author, who tends to write literary fiction that captures the people and character of New York City.

North River follows Dr. Delaney, the local doctor in Greenwich Village during the Depression. He is an injured WWII vet, serving the poor and dealing with the disappearance of his wife. Delaney has been limping through life, not fully living, until his only child, Grace, abandons her almost 3 year old son Carlito on his doorstep. Delaney also saves the life of his WWII buddy, turned Italian mobster friend and gets himself mixed up in a mob war. Into this chaos enters Rose, an illegal, Sicilian immigrant, who is hired to care for Carlito and keep house. Her solidity and love of life, help to change the Delaney home forever.

This is a slice of life story about the growth of Delaney. As a Jersey girl myself, I loved the 1930s, NYC setting, and found the happy (but let me say, very open) ending refreshing in a work of literary fiction. Don't get me wrong, there are some dark issues like mafia, suicide, prostitution, poverty, and domestic abuse, which are all explored in this novel. However, overall, Delaney's story is life affirming.

And it is with this point that our discussion began. The entire group loved how this book felt "old fashioned," not just because it was about a simpler time, but also because it was a novel with substance that was "easy to read," "fluid," and "straightforward." (The quoted terms were all used by the participants to describe this novel.)
We also talked a great deal about Hamill's use of words. People read out passages with descriptions they enjoyed. We talked about how well Hamill captured Carlito's 3 year-old voice. He is young and did not know English. Delaney's observations of how he learns to build sentences (noting his first uses of adjectives and verbs) as well as Hamill's dialog for the boy, were striking to us. Hamill is known for his ability to capture people and describe places evoking all five of the readers senses, and our group noticed this right away.

Despite the fact that this novel was written by a man, the participants were quite impressed with how Hamill described Rose. One participant thought he did such a great job describing the food and cooking smells that she had to double check the author's name to make sure it wasn't a female writer. This led another group member to comment on Delaney's dreams. She also felt that including dreams was a bit more feminine. We were in agreement that this novel would be a great choice for groups that tend to only read women writers but want to try a male author.

North River also centers around the grandfather/grandson relationship which my group enjoyed, although here they thought Hamill's maleness shone through. As mothers and grandmothers, the participants felt that Carlito adjusted a little too fast for their taste. Others were appalled that Delaney agrees to give custody of Carilto back to his daughter, the mother who abandoned him, so easily. And a few others though Delaney himself made the transistion from being "numb" to having a full household a bit too smoothly. However, these were all minor complaints. No one thought that any of this took away from the novel as a whole.

There is some moral ambiguity in this novel too. Delaney tends to injured people in the neighborhood who are victims of domestic abuse and severely injured Chinese prostitutes, but never reports any crimes to the police. The largest issue, however, is Delaney's involvement in a mob war. First he saves his war buddy, who is one of the local mob bosses, after a botched assassination attempt. For his work, Delaney accepts $5,000 in cash from the mobster. He then is targeted by the rival mob boss, Frankie Botts. After caring for Frankie's sick mother, Delaney is no longer in mortal danger. Yet, when his war buddy returns and makes it clear that Frankie will be dead shortly, Delaney does not alert the police or Botts. He questions himself when a mob war breaks out all over the city. He could have stopped it, but chose not to.

We discussed these moral ambiguities. However, we agreed that Hamill built up Delaney as the caregiver to the community; the only doctor they had. He needed to take care of these forgotten people, and since no one could really pay him, taking the $5,000 from a mobster was a no-brainer. He had a kid to take care of now. And, for the same reasons he could not get involved in their mob issues.

The only other mild criticism our group had was that the ending was a bit too neat. Things seemed to wrap-up perfectly. Although, again, the characters and setting we so richly described that we all were okay with the happy, if still slightly open, ending.

One last amusing anecdote from our group. I used these Reading Group Guides discussion questions to lead the group. Question 12 states:

One presence in this novel has in fact vanished: the big city political machine. Such machines were often corrupt but did play important roles in urban life --- for example, in handling the arrival of immigrants in large numbers. Are there any lessons here for today’s world?
Okay, note to the writers of these questions....we live in Chicagoland and the big political machine is still HUGE here. Those people need to see Mayor Daley in action some time. I mean the guy wanted to close an airport, and when no one would let him, he brought in some bulldozers in the middle of the night to dig up the runway. And he will get us the Olympics, I am sure of it. Without his political machine, we would have no chance.

During the discussion, participants mentioned that this book reminded them of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith and The Godfather by Mario Puzo.
Those who liked North River for its historical description of local politics may also want to try William Kennedy's novels of Albany politics. Ironweed is the best of the lot and takes place in a similar time frame.

Richard Russo also writes about the evolution of mature men very well. Try Straight Man which follows a middle aged college professor who is humorously stumbling through absurd situations. Although it has more blatant humor than North River, at its heart, Straight Man is about its main character's growth.

The "Five Points" history of NYC plays a big role in creating the mood and setting for this novel. Those who want to know more about the history of that era should either check out the book The Gangs of New York : an Informal History of the Underworld by Herbert Ashbury or view the Martin Scorsese film The Gangs of New York (2002).

For those who liked the New York City setting I would suggest the novel, Empire Rising by Thomas Kelly or these books about the history of NYC.

The next meeting of our group is on Monday, July 20th at 2pm when we will be discussing Joan Didion's memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking.

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