For an elegy, Tabloid City teems with life.
People die in ugly ways in this riveting crime novel, but it's also concerned with another death: the shutdown of a daily newspaper. At the same time, the book is a gritty, cynical but heartfelt love song to New York City, in days gone by and right this minute.
Pete Hamill writes with authority on life in the newsroom — a journalist since 1960, he has covered news around the world for daily newspapers and such publications as the New Yorker and Rolling Stone, won a slew of awards and is the only person who has been editor in chief of both New York tabloid newspapers, the Post and the Daily News.
Tabloid City, Hamill's 10th novel, is told from the points of view of many characters, but its central character is Sam Briscoe, hard-boiled editor of a fictional tabloid called the New York World, the city's last surviving afternoon daily.
Briscoe is 71 and has been a newspaperman so long he still calls the front page's lead headline "the wood": "He remembers seeing page 1 letters actually cut from wood in the old composing room of the Post, six blocks down West Street. The muffled sound of Linotype machines hammering away from the composing room. Most of the operators deaf-mutes, signaling to each other by hand."
These days he presides over a half-empty newsroom, its occupied desks aglow with computer screens, and he snarls every time someone — such as his young publisher, who inherited the company and has zero news experience — suggests he pay more attention to the World's website. He knows his, and the paper's, days are numbered. But the work is his life.
Tabloid City begins with Briscoe arriving for work, as usual, at a couple of minutes after midnight. It looks like a slow news day — until word comes in of a double homicide in the West Village, a wealthy woman and her secretary stabbed to death after a dinner party.
The story is that day's wood, for sure. But it's not that simple: One of the women was Briscoe's longtime lover. Conferring with another editor, "Neither mentions the tabloid joy of murder at a good address. But Briscoe feels the rush, the adrenaline pumping. And then walks to his office consumed by shame."
Starting in the newsroom, Tabloid City ripples out across New York. Its story moves among an NYPD antiterrorism officer, a hedge fund manager sneaking out of town ahead of indictment, the hedge fund manager's beautiful and accomplished mistress, an Iraq war veteran wanting payback for the loss of his legs and his family, an ambitious comic book artist, a bitterly anti-Semitic gossip blogger, a young Muslim would-be suicide bomber, a famous painter who has gone blind, an illegal immigrant desperate to provide for her family, a teenage girl giving birth alone in a locked room and others.
Hamill does a masterful job of structuring the novel, gradually revealing the connections among all those people and building suspense as the body count mounts. The entire tale takes place in less than 24 hours, with the pressure of all sorts of deadlines adding to its urgency.
He's also adept at the telling detail, the kind that gives us a character in a couple of sentences: "She never needed to italicize a word. She just moved her brows in an amused way."
As a thriller, Tabloid City works beautifully. But it's just as much a fond farewell to an era of journalism that's passing fast, with an eye toward its uncertain future.
One of Briscoe's best reporters is young Bobby Fonseca, and Briscoe frets about what will become of the kid if the World ends. Bobby's girlfriend, Victoria, is so steeped in old-school journalism she has a photo of Martha Gellhorn hanging in her apartment:
"— She was married to Hemingway, right? Fonseca says.
"— Wrong. He was married to Martha Gellhorn. As a journalist, Hemingway wouldn't make a pimple on her ass."
Fonseca's not quite so nostalgic, but he — like Briscoe, like Hamill — is a born reporter, as he tries to explain to his father: "Going to work where every single day it was something new, some new story, where I could learn about people, and sudden death, and human pain. Not reading about them. Seeing them. Then telling their stories. I tried to explain to him, Dad, I don't want to be rich, I don't want to be famous, I want to be good. And he said, Why can't you be good at something like banking?"
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.