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.