On Sundays, Gothamist runs opinion pieces on issues relevant to life in New York. The views expressed below belong entirely to the author.

2006_03_arts_krissamarchcover.jpgNew York isn’t a place to be taken lightly (or for granted), and there are as many novels attempting to capture its vibrancy are there are streets. Since the dawn of its history, New York has captivated artists attempting to convey even a smidgen of its potency through their work. So while this book isn’t exactly a new release, consider it the first in an ongoing virtual bookshelf, a review of the art of writing about the city itself. If you have suggestions, too, of any book that you consider the quintessential New York novel, feel free to pass it along. Over time, perhaps, our bookshelf will serve as a loose gathering of literary threads from all over the city, a lot like the streets themselves. It’s a map, if you will.

With this in mind, I decided to start with the broadest of canvases, with a story that is every stage of the city’s history – Pete Hamill’s Forever. The author is a New York institution himself, having worked at most of the city’s newspapers at one time or another. He is, in a sense, the quintessential New York reporter, but he’s also the quintessential New Yorker – born in Park Slope to Northern Irish immigrants in the 1950’s. And Forever is a novel that’s as New York as its author is. Hamill doesn’t let the action stray any farther than either of our rivers.

That’s because our hero can’t. Cormac O’Connor flees Ireland in 1740, landing on New York’s shores when this magnificent city was only a scrubby village of colonialists and ruffians. He runs away from an Ireland he adores, where both his mother and father have died at the greedy hands of the English Earl of Warren. The ancient Irish mythology that runs through his veins dictates that Cormac must slay the Earl and end his family line. But fulfilling his destiny in New York becomes the work of nearly three centuries, as Hamill is granted immortality so long as he never leaves Manhattan’s rocky shores.

We can forgive Hamill a smidge of Manhattanite snobbery – the island serves as a modern-day Tír na nÓg which bewitches Cormac. “That was the curse attached the gift,” ruminates Cormac: “you buried everyone you loved.” Hamill carries Cormac through two hundred and sixty-one years gracefully and with a real affection of place – even if sometimes, that affection made the book pages longer than it needed to be. All nine chapters (nine being Cormac’s magic number, born the ninth day of the ninth month) visit a different time in Cormac’s – and the city’s – history.

Perhaps some of those chapters could have been a bit shorter. While most of Cormac’s eras leap off the page with potency and grace, some others drag and prod. The 1870’s, where Cormac lives through the decline of Boss Tweed’s notorious grip on Tammany Hall, was stumbling and aimless. The Forrest Gump tactic of dropping a fictional character into a true person’s life feels forced and kitschy. While I didn’t mind dropping Cormac into the Draft Riots or the gang wars in the Five Points or even New York’s earliest slave revolts, when our fictional hero skirts the parameters of history, it doesn’t feel as cheesy as having him bring ice cream to Boss Tweed’s prison cell. It took away from the hurtling, inexorable rhythm of Cormac’s trajectory through history. I would have preferred touching down in the 1900’s at least once – it’s a golden century for New York that we regrettably only see through reminiscence.

But this is one single complaint in a novel full of life, characters that jump off the page to do battle in our very living rooms, a novel that glides through New York’s history and lets New York stand in for civilization itself. Cormac’s boundaries in the mythical Land of the Young makes a very valid point about New York and its role in the country’s history, its growth from a teeming village to the epicenter of the world. It’s a point of view that New Yorkers find agreeable. But as delightfully snobby a perspective as that may be for the native and adopted children of the city, it’s not just that. Hamill humanizes the living history of the city through the lens of Cormac, the man who never changes in the city that never stops doing so. Like the architects who dreamt a future for New York long before the concrete and steel rose out of the ground, Hamill’s Cormac is forged in the blood and bone of history and imagination, and is truly a masterpiece.