Category: Archive

Book Review A sharp look at a harsh world

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jim Mulvaney

FORK IN THE ROAD, by Denis Hamill. Pocket Books, New York. 480 pp. $24.95.

There are many weeks when the best thing to read in the Sunday New York Daily News is Denis Hamill’s column.

It can be quite an effort to find the column because it is buried deep in the bowels of the paper. When you get to Dear Abby, you’re halfway there. But unlike what comes before, Hamill’s columns tend to be unpredictable and lyrical. After years of fits and starts as a big time columnist, Denis wisely abandoned the traditional "big story through little guy" style mastered by his extraordinarily talented brother Pete and his one-time colleague Jimmy Breslin. Now Denis simply tells short stories for their own merit, rather than to make a sweeping public statement.

Hamill’s newspaper columns are tales without grandiose intentions: chronicles of his alter-ego Ryan, forced out of Brooklyn by skyrocketing rents and left to contemplate middle-aged life from middle-class Queens; the struggles of a guy who opened a movie theater on a once blighted neighborhood; a work in progress about a man and a woman in their 50s who believe they are falling in love. Denis doesn’t force the issue by telling the reader what these stories mean in a grander context; he just serves them up nice as can be.

He does the same in "Fork in the Road." This novel is a departure for Hamill, whose past books have tended toward the tough Mick tales on New York with lots of cops and firemen and sandhogs and union halls. This book is about Hamill himself and it is a powerfully haunting story. The style has been called "slapstick tragedy." It is a runaway train plummeting toward inevitable destruction, slowing down enough on the turns to allow for bits of humor.

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In the book, a, handsome, would-be film director, Colin Coyne, visits Dublin to research a fictional story about a New Yorker who returns to his parents’ hometown in search of love. Coyne is a lot like Hamill, a good-looking guy with a wisecracking, self-assured style. It starts hilariously as Coyne is being pickpocketed by a gorgeous blond during a crowded afternoon in the Horseshoe Bar at the Shelbourne Hotel.

Of course, Colin falls in love with the brown-eyed thief, who he says has a "lethally beautiful face."

Hokey? Sure. I might even say it was over the top, if I didn’t know that the scene came from one of Hamill’s true-life adventures. And even if the reader doesn’t know Hamill’s romantic history, the details ring too true not to have come from real life.

The beauty, Gina Furey, is a one-woman commercial crime wave who picks pockets, shoplifts and picks up her welfare checks wearing thousand dollar outfits. Most significant, she is a "traveling person," to use the political correct term, or "knacker" or "tinker," to use the vernacular. While Colin courts the girl of his dreams, Hamill presents the history of the modern-day Irish gypsies, some of whose families have been homeless since the Famine. With reputations as career criminals, the "gypsies" are the outcasts of Irish society. For most Americans, our image of Irish travelers is the rheumy-eyed adolescent, one arm clutching a filthy papoose with a crying infant, the other palm extended for charity on O’Connell Bridge or Stephen’s Green.

Hamill takes us beyond that sad cliché for an examination of the new reality of the traveling people. In pre-modern Ireland, meaning before the late 1960s, the gypsies plied the roads in jauntily painted horse-drawn carriages, working odd jobs, collecting junk and fixing pots and pans (thus the moniker "tinker"). In modern Ireland it has been decided to get these folks off the road and slap them into welfare projects. It is an experiment that is failing.

Hamill shows us the projects with an eye like a camera and an ear for dialogue that makes you feel like you’re listening rather than reading. He shows the alcoholism, the incest, kleptomania and self-destructive violence of underclass Dublin in a way no American has ever done before. It’s a harsh place, certainly not your grandparents’ Ireland (or, maybe it was and that’s why they came here).

Following a somewhat Oedipal strain, Colin brings Gina to New York, hoping that the distance from bad influences will magnify what is good about her. The plan is less than successful. Each setback becomes tragedy but none of it is without a laugh until the shocking conclusion.

This is not to say the book is for everyone. The language is harsh, some of the sex gratuitous and some of the constantly changing points of view needlessly confusing.

There is no moralizing in this book. He shows the bad side of good people and vice versa.

His portrait of underbelly Dublin is riveting.

Like his newspaper columns, Denis Hamill has produced a true-life tale that stands on its own.

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