Immortal magic realism
Revisiting ‘Forever,’ a tale of revenge through the ages


by Joe Foster

‘Forever’ by Pete Hamill. Little, Brown and Co., 2003. 613 pages.

I’d like to tell you about a good book. This one is not new. In fact it was released to some critical acclaim back in 2003, when it was a “Top 10 BookSense Selection.” Informational interlude: BookSense, if you didn’t know, is a national marketing tool available to independent bookstores across the country. It puts out one of the very few, true-to-form bestseller lists out there, listing the books that have actually sold in independent bookstores every week. The revered New York Times Bestseller list is really nothing more than an easily manipulated indicator of the books on which the publishers have spent the most advertising dough. What you see when you look at the NYT list is, mostly, a list of books that have been bought in bulk by the chains, which really has very little to do with sales. Having a book on that list, though, helps ensure that more people are aware of it. In my very biased opinion, however, the people who buy books at independent bookstores are more discerning readers than most others, and the books that they like are often well worth the read. With that said, Forever, by Pete Hamill, is very much one of those worthy reads.

I have to admit to a fondness for a good revenge story, and Forever is, at its heart, a story about revenge. I love stories like The Count of Monte Cristo and characters like Frankenstein, Hamlet, Inigo Montoya and so many others who let the urgent and consuming need for revenge drive everything. Here I am, another bleeding-heart pacifist-like liberal well aware of Gandhi’s assertion that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, and I love the idea of Inigo finally confronting and killing that six-fingered bastard … but I digress again.

Cormac O’Connor, Forever’s protagonist, is blessed, or cursed, to live, well, forever. As long as he never leaves Manhattan, he will never die. He is there when New York is just a village in the woods, through the American Revolution, the Civil War, all the way up to present time. He is there at 9/11. He grew up in 18th Century Ireland, the son of a towering Celtic blacksmith father and a secretly Jewish mother in a time in which it was death to be anything but English Protestant. Through a series of negligent accidents and outright murder, Cormac’s destiny is tied to the Earl Warren, a slave-trading and vile aristocrat. Cormac must avenge the death of loved ones by killing the Earl and wiping his seed from the earth, or he will never rest and never join his family in the afterlife. The Earl flees to America and Cormac follows, his father’s sword hidden away until the time is right for revenge.

At its core, Forever is about Cormac’s quest to fulfill his familial obligations. Surrounding this core, though, is the story of New York itself and its rise from infancy and mud to eventual glory and infamy. Cormac never really uses his immortality for personal gain. In other stories, he might have lived life as a king, the true secret master of New York. Hamill, though, makes him a man of low conceit, an anonymous man of the people, roaming the streets most often as a newspaper reporter. He lives in hovels and brothels and barely scrapes by, living through a series of doomed love affairs. What point, really, is love if it can only lead to a buried memory? One of Cormac’s biggest frustrations and challenges is the revenge story itself. Unable to leave Manhattan, he watches for news stories of the Earl’s descendants and dreads when one comes to town. The thirst for revenge may have died centuries ago, but the obligation never weakens, and so he secretly stalks this family through the ages.

The willing suspension of disbelief is obviously a must for this tale of magic realism told in the tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mark Helprin, Carlos Fuentes, Rudolfo Anaya, Laura Esquivel, Italo Calvino, Yann Martel, Jose Saramago, Isabel Allende and so many more of the greatest of modern writers. With a powerful and wondrous horse that arrives when he so desperately needs transport, African and Celtic priestesses that work the magic of earth and immortality, a blood-debt that compels through the centuries, and a man, very much alone, observing the evolution of a country through the eyes of its greatest city, Forever is a rich, vibrant and very good read. •