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Love in the Time of Depression

Review of North River by Pete Hamill (Little, Brown and Company, 2007).

Here's one way to write about mixed marriage: Just ignore it.

Seriously. It may be the best--or just the safest--strategy for a novelist who wants to write about two very different characters, from different backgrounds, without resorting to stereotypes. It can even come across as enlightened: If two characters don't seem hung up on religion or race, it's fair to assume their creator isn't, either.

North River

(Then again, by ignoring those things, is our novelist suggesting that they don't matter? Because that kind of assumption may ring false, as well.)

With all this to consider, Pete Hamill's 10th novel, North River, carries surprisingly little baggage. It's a love story set in Depression-era New York, a grim time, to be sure, when America seemed on the verge of collapse. The country is between wars; rows of shaggy, unwashed veterans line the streets; and the melting pot of New York is carved into racial and ethnic zip codes. Hamill's Manhattan is so ethnically incestuous that Jews marry only Jews; Catholics, Catholics; and "A Sicilian married to a Neapolitan… [was] called a mixed marriage."

So our hero, Dr. James Delaney, is a bit of a maverick. Setting aside his professional creed (he's a selfless, indefatigable doctor who makes the Hippocratic oath seem lax) and his hard-luck history (dead wife, estranged daughter), he takes a liking to Rose, a feisty Italian immigrant whose back story is equally grim. (It involves an abusive husband, an accidental homicide, and a prudent flight from the law.)

Their lives are about to get more interesting. On a snowy winter day, a foundling appears on the good doctor's doorstep: his grandson. A note from his daughter explains all. (I won't.) Until now, Delaney has been "a bit player at other people's tragedies." As a surrogate parent, he'll be center stage, along with Rose. In fact, although she's initially there to help raise the boy, the possibility that Rose will become more than just a paid caretaker is what carries the plot along until its final, crowd-pleasing chapters. (If that seems to spoil the ending, don't worry. You'll see it coming.)

But there's more to the Rose/Delaney saga: It has actual depth. Hamill refuses to allegorize the relationship, to make Delaney a stand-in for Ireland and Rose a placemat for Italy. North River is not a fable of cultural miscegenation or anything as trite as that. Opposites do attract, Hamill seems to be saying, but so what? He makes it clear that cultural differences don't really matter when two people need each other.

What they don't need, apparently, is God. Rose is non-religious; Delaney was born Catholic but is now sufficiently lapsed that he doesn't--in fact, can't--pray. But he is not alone in a novel obsessed with disbelief. In addition to Delaney, we meet Izzy the atheist, a more scandalous specimen. From the get-go, Izzy seems like more than one person. "Izzy… was half Jewish, half Italian, full of sarcasm," Hamill writes. Izzy makes several charming cameos; he's a likeable loudmouth, a barroom philosopher whose main rhetorical mode is blasphemy. "What kind of god tells a man to kill his son?" he rails over a pint of ale. "An egotistical, cruel, son of a bitch of a god!"

Izzy's mixed background isn't what defines him. In North River's packed menagerie of damaged but upright characters, he stands out on his own, God-less terms. That's not surprising for such a progressively-minded novel. Nor would I be surprised if there had been a real life Izzy, since the period details in North River are exact, right down to the street-signs in downtown Manhattan and the "human ruins" that line those streets looking for a handout.

North River is a fine novel, a gritty look at Manhattan in a dirtier, less self-conscious time, long before the days of Starbucks and wireless shops. Hamill has never been afraid of sentimentality, and he does an honorable (if saccharine) job of casting his novel with characters who are unafraid to profess their undying love for each other, divergent backgrounds be-damned.

Jesse Tisch

Jesse Tisch is a freelance writer and the assistant editor of Contemplate: the International Journal of Cultural Jewish Thought.

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