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 The community-centric institutions—bars and bookstores—have been replaced by objects of crass consumerism.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.”