By JOHN DARNTON
Published: May 20, 2011
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Granted, as silver linings go this may be scant consolation, but the decline and demise of newspapers seems to be ushering in a raft of good novels by journalists who miss the old ink and newsprint. Reporters harking back to footloose times are not new (think of Evelyn Waugh’s “When the Going Was Good”), but now that end days may actually be upon us, we may be facing a complete subgenre: Où sont les news d’antan? We’ve already had Tom Rachman’s book “The Imperfectionists.” Now comes Pete Hamill’s “Tabloid City,” which sets a high bar for those that follow.
Brooklyn-born and a newspaperman since 1960, formerly the editor in chief of both The New York Postand The Daily News, Hamill speaks tabloidese. He writes it, too. His sentences are short and pack a punch. Sometimes without verbs. In a single paragraph.
And no one can accuse him of not knowing New York. He plies its underbelly for a suspenseful tale, set in the present day, that captures the grit and smell and pulse of Gotham’s sidewalks and subways. It centers on a double murder at a fancy Greenwich Village address, that tabloid sensation that cries out for “the wood” (the gigantic front-page headline). One of the victims is Cynthia Harding, a wealthy socialite devoted to the public library, who’s been carrying on a love affair for decades with Sam Briscoe, editor in chief of The New York World, the last remaining afternoon tabloid, whose numbered days, unbeknown to him, have dwindled to less than one. Sam is a 71-year-old with a past (an early marriage gone wrong, a conquered drinking problem), and losing both his woman and his newspaper in a single day is his own kind of double murder (though at times it’s hard to tell which one he mourns more).
The story takes place over 24 hours, which is what used to constitute the daily news cycle. It’s told through the footsteps and psyches of no fewer than 14 characters who roam the city like figures out of an Edward Hopper painting, in various stages of loneliness, rage and frustration. They’re a varied lot: a homegrown Muslim terrorist out for blood; a sympathetic black cop working on the antiterrorism squad; a veteran from the Iraq war, in a wheelchair and packing a gun; an aging blind artist in the Chelsea Hotel; a hard-pressed Mexican cleaning woman who loses her job; a business tycoon on the lam; and so on. Some, like the young, idealistic reporter and the chain-smoking rewrite woman consigned to producing the paper’s “Vics and Dicks” column, verge on stereotype, but they don’t stick around long enough to become annoying. They all put in bite-size appearances, announced by headings of time and place, which give the story a staccato Web-like immediacy. At the end most wind up at the same spot, a onetime mosque turned into a crowded disco, with danger in the air.
As the title suggests, the main character is New York, and it’s not particularly friendly or inviting. This is not the fabled “melting pot” or even the “gorgeous mosaic” David Dinkins used to talk about. “It’s a tabloid city,” one character says, where people are out for money or fame or just trying to muddle through, and where they bounce up against one another in random and largely fraught encounters, like the playfield of a loony pinball machine that fires off all its balls at once.
The real poignancy comes from nostalgia, and Hamill slathers it on like a counterman packing in the pastrami at Katz’s. The list of remembered places and things is legion: egg creams, suspenders, the Dodgers and Giants, Linotype machines, Murray Kempton, the Clancy Brothers, the Cedar Tavern, the Lion’s Head, Sloppy Louie’s, the Third Avenue El, the Fulton Fish Market, the Village Gate. Everything but Horn & Hardart. It’s enough to make you weep.
John Darnton, a former correspondent and editor at The Times, is the author of the recent memoir “Almost a Family.”