Sunday, October 01, 2006

Characters reading books, part 2

Part one is here.

The Hard Case Crime novel I read Sunday was Pete Hamill’s The Guns of Heaven (1983), featured its share of books, too. The main character, journalist Sam Briscoe, who half-accidentally gets himself tangled up in a gun-running operation for the IRA, has a daughter who’s wrapped up in Dostoevsky, and he knocks out a musclebound stooge who’s reading a history of the IRA to study up on the enemy. No book plays anywhere near such a central role as The History of the Conquest of Peru does in Plunder of the Sun, but they're still an important part of the background of the novel.

And The Guns of Heaven is a crime novel whose background is its most important asset. It’s a Pete Hamill book, so it’s crammed with jazz, drinks, sports, and everything New York, new and old. As with his Why Sinatra Matters (2003) (which until someone writes the definitive critical biography we need will stand as the best explanation of Sinatra as man and cultural totem), the book reminds us that Hamill has spent a lifetime steeping himself in New York, and now, through his stand-in, Briscoe, we get to drink deep. We learn all about the nooks and crannies of the city, all about the basement telegraph room of the Plaza Hotel, the Irish dive bars of Queens, and that sax player Paul Desmond was a wonderful four a.m. conversationalist.

Anyone who loves a city has to learn to turn a dislike of change into a love of loss, and Hamill funnels all that sense of loss into The Guns of Heaven, from lost illusions to lost friends to lost watering holes. On a beautiful morning in Harlem, Briscoe thinks of the past:
I saw a heavyset black man washing the windows of his grocery store, and kids starting a crap game, and three beautiful young girls walking in a sassy way past the shuttered doors of the old Apollo Theater. I had probably sat with their mothers in that theater, when Basie was on stage with the greatest of all bands, or while Little Willie John did one final gig before going to prison, or Dinah Washington sang “Unforgettable” while the balconies throbbed and roared. Redd Fox played there, too, before television tamed him, and the great musicians and the rock ’n‘ rollers, too. Dexter Gordon told me once that the musicians all stayed in the hotel behind the theater on One Hundred and Twenty-sixth Street and fought for windowed rooms because they overlooked the dressing rooms where the chorus girls changed. When I was a kid reporter, it was still possible to go up to the Apollo on a Friday night and eat dinner at Frank’s and maybe stroll down to Minton’s for bebop or over to Sugar Ray’s for some talk and a sight of the greatest of all champions. The last time Sugar Ray was in New York I told him I’d meet him uptown; Frank’s was closed, and so was the Apollo, and there were no beboppers at Minton’s and Sugar Ray’s had fallen to the taxmen. He met me on the corner of One Hundred and Twenty-fifth and Lenox. I looked at Ray, and he looked at me and said: “Where the fuck’d everybody go?”

A good crime novel is suffused with the knowledge that at best we’re fighting a holding action, preserving some little bit of the good while all else collapses around us. Loss is inevitable, weariness and cynicism the cost of the battle. Hamill, who gives the impression of having been born old and watched the city catch up to him, understands that as well as anyone, and The Guns of Heaven is a reminder that a good crime novel also is built around the knowledge that not only should one keep fighting, but that there's really no other option

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