Hamill's New Novel Set in Depression-Era N.Y. Author Pete Hamill's latest novel, North River, explores a slice of American life that occurred after his parents had emigrated to the U.S. from Ireland, and just before Hamill was born.
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Hamill's New Novel Set in Depression-Era N.Y.

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Hamill's New Novel Set in Depression-Era N.Y.

Hamill's New Novel Set in Depression-Era N.Y.

Hamill's New Novel Set in Depression-Era N.Y.

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Author Pete Hamill's latest novel, North River, explores a slice of American life that occurred after his parents had emigrated to the U.S. from Ireland, and just before Hamill was born.

SCOTT SIMON, Host:

Pete Hamill joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

PETE HAMILL: Oh, gee, it's great to be here.

SIMON: This book suggests you're clearly fascinated by that era.

HAMILL: And one of the points of the book, for me personally, was to celebrate them because they helped get me here, and hundreds or thousands and millions of other people, to get into the world that we inhabit a day after the war. It's saying thanks to those people because they were tough and they knew how to be decent in a bad time.

SIMON: Not only was the Depression a miserable, vexing and challenging time for Americans, but it came right after a boon. So their...

HAMILL: Exactly.

SIMON: ...their expectations were something else.

HAMILL: The United States - we had believed that all the wars were over. We're on our way to a great endless, bright future. And suddenly something has happened. And, I think, that sense is what permeated so many of these people and how they responded in different ways is really the subtext of a lot of this novel.

SIMON: A woman named Rose comes in to Dr. Delaney's life to take care of Carlito - the young 3-year-old boy who has been left on Dr. Delaney's doorstep. Not giving too much away, they kind of formed an impromptu family, which is Irish, Italian and Mexican.

HAMILL: That's true - the immigrant dream.

SIMON: You could say also a dream of the Democratic Party for slate making between...

HAMILL: Yeah.

SIMON: ...mayor and city council president and treasurer.

HAMILL: And remember, at this time, racist laws had banned all Asians, Southern Europeans from entering the United States. And so they found a bond with each other, those people. They knew that New York that they arrived in was the capital of people who were not like you.

SIMON: Well, you write very sympathetically in the book, in many ways, about Tammany Hall...

HAMILL: Right.

SIMON: ...and the advice of an old judge, what it's (unintelligible).

HAMILL: It's better to know the judge than to know the law.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Yeah.

HAMILL: Which was Boss Tweed's line, quoted by a judge who lets Rose when she gets in trouble - lets her skip going to court and just behave herself. It was a more human form of social organization, I think. The Tammany guys, many of them were corrupt. They were still around when I was a boy. You knew the Tammany guys' name. It was better than being Case Number 176G at the Welfare Department. And it was a fair exchange. They would help you become an American and all you had to do was vote for them. You didn't have to pay them money or anything. They wanted the power of your votes.

SIMON: You also have a surprisingly sympathetic treatment of a mobster in the book. This is Dr. Delaney's old friend.

HAMILL: It's a mobster, ex-bootlegger.

SIMON: I hate to use - well, it fits. A mobster with a heart of gold, if you please.

HAMILL: Yeah. He was a decent guy. I mean, bootleggers were romanticized by people like F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example. Gatsby is a bootlegger. And they were not thought of as evil criminals in the newspapers either. There was a certain amount of affection for them.

SIMON: At one point in the book, the doctor doesn't do what maybe he could have done to avert one of the mobs from carrying out a hit because he says, well, those are the rules of war.

HAMILL: Yeah. Essentially, if he had to turn in his friend - there's a line for me, of course, the words - if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying a friend, I hope I would have the grace, I think, was the word, to betray my country. You know, in other words, the larger law, as important as the law was, always has a major exception for family and friends.

SIMON: One of the things I really admired about your book is when I closed it I realized I don't think I'd ever before read a novel where the romantic character is a grandfather.

HAMILL: And in this particular story, one of the agents of bringing together is that little boy because any of us who've ever been parents know that one of the things about having children - small children - is you begin to see the world new again. The child begins to teach you to see again the things that you've become jaded about. Not only about the place but about the way you feel about each other. And I think novels more than history are tales of the emotional lives of human beings.

SIMON: Any characters in here, distinctly, either autobiographical or traceable to your family?

HAMILL: I knew people like that in my neighborhood in Brooklyn because a lot of them moved to Brooklyn, even though, they were from Manhattan. And a few of them actually remained Giant fans in the land of Dodger fans. And there was one Yankee fan, a way over on the far end of Brooklyn, and I finally understood later, it was probably Giuliani.

SIMON: That I was just going to point that out. Giuliani very proudly says, right? He was the...

HAMILL: Yeah, he was the only Yankee fan in Brooklyn.

SIMON: Yes. Well, that will make you pugnacious, won't it?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HAMILL: So directly autobiographical, no. But I hope I'm true to the spirit of those guys that I knew - those older guys that told their tales.

SIMON: Pete, thank you very much.

HAMILL: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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