Tabloid City by Pete Hamill
Little, Brown & Company, May 2011
Advanced Reading Copy , 278 pages
In a stately West Village town house, a wealthy socialite and her secretary are murdered. In the 24 hours that follow, a flurry of activity surrounds their shocking deaths:
The head of one of the city's last tabloids stops the presses. A cop investigates the killing. A reporter chases the story. A disgraced hedge fund manager flees the country. An Iraq War vet seeks revenge. And an angry young extremist plots a major catastrophe.
The City is many things: a proving ground, a decadent carnival, or a palimpsest of memories—a historic metropolis eclipsed by modern times. As much a thriller as it is a gripping portrait of the city of today, Tabloid City is a new fiction classic from the writer who has captured New York perfectly for decades.
Set in New York City, Tabloid City by Pete Hamill follows a myriad of characters, at least 16, for one 24 hour period. Each new section in the novel lists the time, character, and location. Sam Briscoe, the 71-year-old editor in chief of the New York World is the central voice of the novel. The voices of each character are followed as the action all culminates in one location.
Characters include: Sam Briscoe, editor of the New York World; Josh Thompson, a disgruntled, disabled war veteran; Helen Loomis, a long time "rewrite man"; Cynthia Harding, a socialite and longtime lover of Sam; Lew Forrest, an elderly successful artist; Myles Compton, a hedgefund manager on the run; Freddie Wheeler, a vindictive gossip blogger; Sandra Gordon, Cynthia's adopted daughter, Myles lover, and vice president of an ad agency; Ali Watson, a police detective on the anti-terrorist task force; Bobby Fonseca, a young journalist; Malik Shahid, fanatic, Muslim fundamentalist, son of Ali Watson; Beverly Starr, a comic book artist; and Consuelo Mendoza, an illegal immigrant from Mexico.
Tabloid City is ostensibly a murder mystery, but despite what the synopsis says, the murders don't actually occur until around page 100, in a novel of only 278 pages. Before this the large cast of characters are introduced. In the end all the action culminating at one location with the murderous threat of the want-to-be jihadist, felt contrived. Making this the main focus of the plot didn't work for me.
Several of the characters have no real purpose in the plot other than to tell their story. They may have connections to other characters or to each other, but their presence in the novel makes no difference. The character of Beverly Starr could have easily been left out. Lew Forrest knew other characters, including Consuelo Mendoza, but both of them made no difference in the final plot. It's almost as if Hamill wanted to write a book with some short story character sketches. Perhaps the over abundance of characters was also meant to mimic the crowded streets, reflect a "there are eight million stories in the Naked City" attitude, but in this case it didn't work.
What does work in Tabloid City is Hamill's descriptions of a newsroom. It stands out and shines above the rest of the novel. It's a tribute to what is becoming a dying occupation. You know that Hamill is intimately acquainted with a newsroom, the hustle and flow, the action and excitement. The Sam Briscoe character was the highlight of the novel. Tabloid City would have been a better novel had Hamill left out the contrived plot focusing on the murderous young extremist and tightened the focus to make the novel about the last day before the printed paper closed in favor of an online version. Perhaps something reminiscent of O'Nan's Last Night at the Lobster.
Additionally, there is no doubt that Hamill is a very good writer. He knows New York City and his familiarity with the city shines through his prose. He expertly captures not only the location, but the energy of the city. His fans know and expect this. His use of dashes to set off dialogue rather than using quotation marks helps establish a frantic, staccato pace that mimics the bustle of the city.
Hamill also displays his wide range of knowledge of artists, writers, and musicians. While I was able to follow his very noticeable naming of artists and writers, having taken quite a few art history classes and being generally well read, and his knowledge is impressive, I'm unsure that most readers are going to be acquainted with all the names he drops. Perhaps that won't matter, but then it begs the question: If it doesn't matter, why mention so many names?
Tabloid City does a great job mourning the death of print journalism, the loss of a lover, how time changes everything, and it even has a glimmer of hope, but the lackluster murder/mystery is no mystery. If I was giving a number rating, I'd give it a 3.5, so we'll call it highly recommended, especially for fans of Hamill.
Disclosure: I received this novel through the Goodreads First Reads program.
Here comes Briscoe, seventy- one years old, five foot eleven, 182 pounds. He turns a corner into the city room of the last afternoon newspaper in New York. He is the editor in chief. His overcoat is arched across his left shoulder and he is carrying his jacket. The cuffs of his shirtsleeves are crisply folded twice, below the elbows. His necktie hangs loose, without a knot, making two vertical dark red slashes inside the vertical bands of his bright red suspenders. He moves swiftly, from long habit, as if eluding ambush by reporters and editors who might approach him for raises, days off, or loans. Or these days, for news about buyouts and layoffs. His crew cut is steel gray, his lean furrowed face tightly shaven. The dark pouches under both eyes show that he has worked for many years at night. In the vast, almost empty room, there are twenty- six desks, four reporters, and three copy editors, all occasionally glancing at four mounted television screens tuned to New York 1 and CNN, Fox and MSNBC. A fifth screen is dark. Briscoe doesn't look at any of them. He goes directly to a man named Matt Logan, seated at the news desk in the center of the long wide room. Other desks butt against each other, forming a kind of stockade. All are empty. opening
–Where was I? he says. Oh, yeah. The Fonseca kid got the mother. Her son was admitted to Stuyvesant two years ago. Now he's shot dead in the street.
Logan makes some moves on the keyboard, and then Briscoe sees six photographs of a distraught thin black woman pointing at a framed letter.
–That's the mother, Logan says. The letter is from Stuyvesant. When he was accepted.
She is staring into the camera, her face a ruin, holding a framed photograph of a smiling boy in a blazer. The woman is about thirty-five, going on eighty.
–The quality sucks, Briscoe says.
–Yeah. We don't have a photographer tonight so Fonseca shot it with a cell phone. Anyway, that's the vic in the other picture. The dead kid. In his first year in Stuyvesant, after winning a medal for debating.
Logan points to a young man's body on a sidewalk, facedown, chalk marks around him.
–Then he's dead, late this afternoon. Shot five times.
–The usual sh*t, Logan says. Drugs. Or someone got dissed. So say the cops. Who ever really knows? But there's a Doom Page angle too. The mother lost her job six weeks ago. They're gonna throw her out of the house, and the cops think maybe the kid started dealing drugs to save the house.
–Put that in the lede. If it's true.
–I already told Fonseca. pg. 6
Briscoe knows in his heart that it wasn't the end of cigarettes that took the music out of her. Not really. With Helen, it was the final triumph of loneliness. Young Helen Loomis was only one of many great reporters he'd known who were drawn to the rowdy newspaper trade because of the aching solitude in their own lives. Their own pain was dwarfed by the more drastic pain of strangers. As bad as your own life might be, there were all kinds of people out there in the city who were in much worse shape. Their stories filled the newspapers. And for a few hours, the lives of reporters and rewrite men. Until the clock ticked past all deadlines. And the profane, laughing city room emptied. Helen Loomis was now a straggler at a late- night party that was already over. When the deadline was gone, she had nothing left but cigarettes and loneliness. The music of her prose was gone forever. pg. 8-9
And carrying coat and jacket he walks to his dark office at the far end of the city room. Thinking: The kid, that Bobby Fonseca, has loneliness in his eyes too. Except when he's writing. Briscoe unlocks the door. Flicks on the lights. Hangs his garments on a gnarled coat tree he carried away when P. J. Clarke's was remodeled. On his desk, there is a wire rack holding folders. One is marked "Newspapers." Full of dismal news clippings or printouts about shrinking circulation and shrinking ad revenues and shrinking page sizes and rumors of extinction. Layoffs, buyouts, furloughs. The papers themselves were a subset of the main story of Doom, everything that had followed the obliteration of Lehman Brothers that day in September 2008 . In the newspapers, everybody was hurting. The Times. The Tribune Company. McClatchy. The Boston Globe. Gannett. The San Francisco Chronicle. Briscoe didn't know if anybody really cared, except the people who made the newspapers, the people he loved more than any others. In his mind's eye he sees the three young techies working on the World website in their small uptown office. Culling stories from the newspaper, from the AP and Reuters. Lots of raving blog messages from readers. This just in. Breaking news. Nobody in the city room bothered to read the site. Not even Briscoe. But one man certainly did. The man they all called the F.P., the F***ing Publisher. pg. 9