Pete Hamill was New York’s last great storyteller
The summer before my freshman year of high school, I was required to read two books.
The first was “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
And the second was “Snow in August” by Pete Hamill, who passed away on August 5 at 85.
For most of my life, growing up in Denver, Colorado, I had only two Jewish friends. I was deeply attached to my minyan, which was full of adults who loved and nurtured me. But I’d never had a sense of what it might be like to be really embedded in a Jewish community, one in which Jewishness infused my daily experience. When I read about Jewish American life — “All of a Kind Family,” say, or “The Chosen” — I loved the stories, but felt isolated from them. From where I sat, the rich, discretely Jewish world they portrayed seemed completely foreign.
“Snow in August” changed that. It was possibly the first book I ever read that portrayed a kind of Jewish communal life that felt accessible to me. The story of Michael, an 11-year-old Irish boy in Brooklyn who befriends a rabbi, then eventually teams up with him to defeat a brutal local gang, it gave me leeway to experience that foreign Jewish world with the compassionate, curious gaze of an outsider. Sure, the novel was sensationalized — as far as I know, a Golem has never actually roamed the streets of Brooklyn — but it gave me a rare, joyful inroad into a community about which I desperately wanted to know more.
That kind of inroad was Hamill’s specialty. A journalist, novelist and essayist, Hamill was one of those storied New York voices who captured something essential about the city’s ever-changing atmosphere. An Irish boy from Brooklyn, just like the protagonist of “Snow in August,” he was watchful, direct and insatiable. For him, there were never enough stories, never enough ways to speak truth to power and never enough ways to make a tale just a little more grand.
A 2019 New York Times profile credited him with some 9,000 bylines through his career, a staggering body of work that included gigs in Europe and Asia, but focused primarily on the wonder and grime of his native city. He ran two of its papers: The New York Post, for a dramatic five weeks in 1993, and The New York Daily News, for eight months in 1998. He was known for reporting on politics and crime, but his more emotional, inward work was just as persuasive, if not more.
See a Daily News column from 1977, in which he meditated on a sequence for the film “Superman” that had been shot at the Daily News the day before. The production had rebranded the building as that of The Daily Planet, the fictional Metropolis newspaper for which Superman works in his alter ego as Clark Kent, and brought in a cast that Hamill found insulting in its homogeneity. “Metropolis was some sunny daytime town, located in the heart of a loaf of Wonder Bread,” he wrote, scathingly. “There were no Jews in Metropolis, no Greeks, Irish, Italians, no blacks, no Latinos. Poor dumb Superman had to live in the most boring city in the universe.” If there’s ever been a more damning assessment of one of the quintessential American superheroes, I haven’t seen it.
Or, more movingly, the column he published on September 12, 2001, a day after he witnessed the attack on the twin towers from a block and a half away. “On Vesey St., outside the Jean Louis David hair salon on the corner of Church St., we could see a wheel rim from an airplane, guarded by a man in an FBI jacket,” he wrote. “Another anonymous hunk of scorched metal was lying on the ground across Vesey St. from St. Paul’s, where George Washington once kneeled in prayer. ” They were almost ordinary lines, the sort of observations that, if their subjects were different, might be made on any walk. That quietness made them powerful: Without preaching or reaching for the lurid, they made a national tragedy a firmly local story
Occasionally, particularly because of his predilection for melodrama, Hamill went badly amiss. As his Times obituary noted, his 1989 New York Post column about the Central Park Five not only supported the police’s false indictment of five Black and Latino teenagers for a white woman’s beating and rape in Central Park, but exaggerated that narrative’s racism. “They were coming from the anarchic province of the poor,” he wrote. “And driven by a collective fury, brimming with the rippling energies of youth, their minds teeming with the violent images of the streets and the movies, they had only one goal: to smash, hurt, rob, stomp, rape. The enemies were rich. The enemies were white.” In a 1990 column for Esquire about his discomfort with the rising tide of LGBTQ activism, he suffered a rare failure of empathy for a community driven to action by broad indifference to the devastating AIDS pandemic. “Certainly, as gay rhetoric becomes more apocalyptic, the entire public discussion is being reduced to a lurid cartoon, devoid of criticism, irony, nuance, and even common sense,” he wrote.
But his failures were complicated. In that same column, he reckoned with his failure to overcome to the rigidly anti-gay moral codes of his Irish Catholic upbringing. He was harshly critical of the gay community, but, he wrote, “More than anything else, I’m angry with myself when some of the old specters come rising out of the psychic mists of my own generation.” His Central Park Five column bolstered the narrative that led to the conviction and long imprisonment of five innocent men, but in a scathing column about Donald Trump that same year, he lambasted the future president for taking out a full-page ad in The Times calling for those men to receive the death penalty. “T. stood naked, revealed as the spokesman for that tiny minority of Americans who lead well-defended lives,” Hamill wrote. “Forget poverty and its causes, forget the collapse of the manufacturing economy, forget the degradation and squalor of millions; fry them into passivity.”
In other words: Hamill wasn’t perfect, and as someone who made his name as a voice for New York City’s underdogs, the times when he replaced curiosity with prejudice were especially painful. But he was, in his own way, a model of how to be a fallible human. If he had three or six or 100 different opinions about the same issue, he would share them all, and accept the ethical grayness that accompanied that approach.
In the climactic scene of “Snow in August,” Michael, who with the rabbi’s guidance has summoned a Golem, confronts the gang that’s terrorized him and his loved ones throughout the book. It’s a vicious scene: The Golem moves swiftly through the gang members before turning on their 17-year-old leader, Frankie, whom he leaves alive, but only just.
In some ways, the violence is warranted. The treatment isn’t very different from what the gang has regularly dished out to Michael. But it’s still uncomfortable, a fact that Hamill digs into rather than elides. He’s rooting for Michael and the Golem, and so are we. But the last words spoken in the scene belong to Frankie, left alone in the snow in a crumpled heap, moaning “please, somebody help me, please.” In the life of the city, there were a few flat-out bad guys, and a few flat-out good, and many who, just like Hamill, were a bit of both. But all of them had stories, and for Hamill, all those stories were worth telling. And with a very few exceptions, all of them were worthy of love.