Tabloid City and the Contours of Emptiness

Pete Hamill’s new novel explores a city in decline

Tabloid City | by Pete Hamill | Little, Brown and Company | 288 pages, $26.99

In the opening pages of Pete Hamill’s new novel, Tabloid City, the editor-in-chief of a dying tabloid called the New York World looks around his dead-of-night newsroom and thinks, “We live in the capital of emptiness.” This is true not just of Hamill’s fictional World—presented to us as the city’s last afternoon paper, still operating in 2011—but of the Manhattan that he renders. Hamill, whose long tabloid career includes stints as editor of both the Post and the Daily News, offers up a city characterized by loneliness, isolation, and, like any good bleeding lede, plenty of death: down go people, cultures, and iconic institutions.

Foremost among these institutions, of course, are the print newspapers which bind New York’s diverse population. The newspaper, Hamill suggests, is the ultimate equalizer. It doesn’t matter where you come from or how much money you have; everyone reads the same information and, through this commonality, participates in a shared experience. For Hamill, the newspaper is a weapon against isolation. If we are all reading the same news, we cannot be truly alone.

Which is why Tabloid City itself is no desolate landscape. Its pages burst with characters, details, romantic entanglements, and plot twists—an argument, perhaps best made by a man who survived so long in tabloids, that life thrives in rubble. And it is this juxtaposition—between dying and living, emptiness and clutter—that makes Tabloid City such a engaging, although at times frustrating, portrait of contemporary New York.

There is no single narrative to Tabloid City—rather, like any day’s issue of The New York Post, just a persistent sense of impending collision. The book spends twenty-four hours following a dozen characters and a complex series of events. Among them: a nearly blind painter holed up in the Chelsea Hotel who reconnects with an old lover; a cop on the Joint Terrorism Task Force who is searching for his radicalized Muslim son; a vengeful, wheel-chair bound Iraq-war veteran; a Manhattan socialite and philanthropist involved in a long-term affair with the World’s aging editor; and a handful of young reporters, alternately idealistic and disillusioned about the state of modern journalism. Much of the action results from a high-profile murder and the ensuing investigation, which, predictably, brings many of our disparate characters together.

The character who most embodies the emptiness of Tabloid City is Sam Briscoe, the World’s stalwart editor-in-chief. When we first meet Briscoe in the World’s newsroom, he is almost a caricature of the gruff, no-nonsense newsman. “He moves swiftly from long habit,” Hamill writes, “as if eluding ambush by reporters and editors who might approach him for raises, days off, or loans.” When he speaks, he’s impatient. “What else ya got?” he demands of the options for the next day’s headline. He looks over a series of photos and spits out his opinion: “The quality sucks.”

But Hamill lets the character unfold, and we come to see Briscoe struggle with the knowledge that he, like the paper he runs, is the last of his kind. In fact, Briscoe is plagued by nostalgia for a newspaper culture that no longer exists, so much so that it’s worth wondering whether he’s a stand-in for Hamill himself. Briscoe yearns for the old camaraderie, driven by love of the printed word that has been obliterated by websites and blogs. In the book’s Manhattan—which is today’s Manhattan—not even the physical remnants of that old world remain. Wandering alone, one of Briscoe’s long-time World colleagues thinks:

There is no Lion’s Head on Sheridan Square. There is no Bleeck’s. There is no place left where…they all went after the shift ended at eight in the morning, ordering oysters for breakfast, and beer and whiskey, while the sanitation guys hauled huge garbage cans past their tables, reeking with fish heads and tails and bones. While everyone laughed or bitched or argued and then laughed again. Everyone of them smoking. Gone now.

The Lion’s Head was the epicenter of West Village literary culture in the 1960’s, and Hamill himself was a frequent customer during his newsman days. Today Hamill walks down 8th Street and sees shoe emporiums and tacky clothing boutiques instead of the bookstores once frequented by the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan. The community-centric institutions—bars and bookstores—have been replaced by objects of crass consumerism. In Tabloid City, cultural exchange has died. As for the creation of culture—the writers and artists work in lonely isolation, even when they share physical proximity to each other in the World’s newsroom.

What breaks the sense of isolation—and forcefully so—are the interwoven narratives from which Hamill constructs the plot. The book moves at a satisfying clip, in part because Hamill rarely follows any single character for more than a few pages at a time, and submerges us fully into each character’s perspective. His focus is so close, in fact, that the book’s third-person narration sometimes slips into the first.

Hamill’s characters don’t always feel quite complete, though. Take Malik Shahid, the militant obsessed with slaying Western “infidels.” Of course, readers are supposed to be disgusted by him. But Hamill undermines Shahid’s few charitable acts (bringing food and money to his pregnant girlfriend) by never once having him doubt his choices or question his path. He is too easily reduced to the post-9/11 terrorist stereotype, which seems like an opportunity lost.

The same is true of the book’s other villain, Freddie Wheeler, a cynical and vindictive blogger who seems to exist in the book as a warning against a new generation of citizen journalists. When Wheeler learns that a major philanthropist for the New York Public Library has been murdered he decides she was “a New York hustler, chiseling her piece from the charities, lying on her taxes, and always nasty with the help,” and, therefore, deserved to die. But Wheeler’s real disgust for the victim stems from her refusal to accept the new world order—that she “didn’t even know that books are over, that words on paper are over, that nobody goes to the fucking library in the age of Google.”

Shahid and Wheeler are indicative of a broader problem with Hamill’s world: Everything feels stuck in the now. The real New York World may have disappeared in 1931, but Hamill sets this one aggressively in late aughts. He clutters the narrative with current references to people, publications and events, giving us Bloomberg, Gawker, and the Hero on the Hudson to name just a few. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the country’s deep economic recession touch every single character, and often define their narrative trajectories.

Of course, a novel about tabloid newspapers should be tethered to a specific moment in time. And it makes sense that characters are shaped by their historical circumstances. The problem arises when characters start to feel like symbols (the way Wheeler and Malik do) instead of fully realized human beings. Hamill is at his best when he shows his characters living and struggling outside the news cycle. At one point, Briscoe is forced to grieve for a dead lover while at the same time publishing a front page about that lover’s death. It is a devastating confluence of circumstances, and it works precisely because Briscoe’s struggle at that moment is personal. Briscoe’s emotions grow from his unique circumstances—events specific to the world of the novel instead of the world outside the novel.

This is not to take away from the pleasure of reading Tabloid City. The book has enough dramatic events to fill a year’s worth—well, maybe a week’s worth—of New York City tabloids. Over the book’s twenty-four-hour span, Hamill gives readers six deaths (including matricide), a web of romantic entanglements, corruption, poverty, wealth, war, and redemption. All this concentrated drama may stretch credulity for some readers—especially those who don’t live in New York—but the action is so gripping that it’s hard to complain. Like Briscoe, Hamill’s readers will feel “the tabloid joy of murder at a good address…the rush, the adrenalin pumping.”

And afterwards, we, like Briscoe, will be “consumed with shame” for gaping at the unfortunate lives of others. Tabloid City presents this dualism directly and glories in it. Hamill tells us that when we busy ourselves with gawking, we don’t often recognize that we’re all going down together—but that when we snap out of it, we still have the capacity to feel deeply and respond with compassion.

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Jennifer Miller 's debut novel, The Year of the Gadfly, will be published by Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt in 2012. You can reach her at or @propjen on Twitter. Tags: , , , , , ,