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Book review

Small details make this New York story flow

Pete Hamill sets his novel 'North River' in 1934. Pete Hamill sets his novel "North River" in 1934. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

In his articles and memoirs, journalist Pete Hamill's writing is vivid and vigorous, and his love for New York City almost palpable. But in "North River," his prose is muted and the story's pace as glacial as the soul of Dr. James Delaney, the novel's protagonist. Fortunately, Hamill's passion for his city's history is irrepressible, and it infuses color into a tale that would otherwise be as gray as an overcast New York November day.

The son of an Irish Tammany Hall insider, Delaney grew up with an organic understanding of what it meant to serve the neighborhood, whether through policy, performing personal favors, or calling them in. Once a promising surgeon, he has returned to the Greenwich Village of his youth after being injured in World War I to take up a general practice as doctor to the city's prostitutes, gangsters, and working poor.

However, Delaney's life isn't happier or easier than those of his patients. It's 1934; the crash has left him broke and his neighbors unemployed. His angry, depression-prone wife, Molly, has deserted him, and his daughter, Grace, abandoned her life of painting and relative privilege a few years earlier to take up with a Mexican revolutionary. Without family, scrambling to make ends meet, Delaney spends long days with war-wounded, consumptive, destitute, and syphilitic patients, and lonely evenings filled with nightmares and self-recrimination.

Practically the only elements that could turn such a miserable life around are a good-hearted gangster, a child, and the love of a good woman, and all three appear within the first 35 pages.

On a snowy Sunday morning, Delaney is summoned to tend to the gunshot wound of his Army buddy Eddie Corso, an act that will thrust him into the middle of a remarkably uninteresting gang war. And when he returns home, he finds his 3-year-old grandson, Carlito, whom Grace has left in his vestibule while she goes off to Spain in search of her errant husband. Within a day Angela, the proprietor of the local restaurant where Delaney seems to eat every night, has found an illegal Italian immigrant named Rose to be a live-in nanny for Carlito.

And so the slow thawing of Delaney's heart begins. Alas, watching metaphorical ice melt isn't much more engaging than watching the real thing.

No, what bound me to Delaney was where he went -- to the coal-heated tenements of his neighbors, to the Chinatown brothel whose workforce he serves, to the funeral of beloved New York Giants manager John McGraw in St. Patrick's Cathedral, to the construction site that became Rockefeller Center, and to the piers of the North River that we now refer to as the Hudson. I kept reading for his overheard conversations in bars about the emergence of a new leader in Germany named Adolf Hitler, about the struggles of the Republicans against the Fascists in Spain. These period details, peppered throughout the book, were what I wish had suffused it.

New York City is the lead actor in the best of Hamill's writing, and as backdrop in "North River," it steals the show. Let's hope that in future books, he abandons his imagined protagonists for the generous character of the real city that has fueled his best work.

Julie Wittes Schlack is a Cambridge-based writer and facilitator of online communities.