It was almost 7 p.m. as we weaved through the knots of construction in DUMBO. My friend and I were en route to powerHouse Arena, a really intense name for a charming little bookstore/venue. Pete Hamill was to read from his new book, Tabloid City. I must admit that this was my first “book launch,” and I had just finished reading Tabloid City the night before. In a nerdy way, I was a little excited. Inside the venue, the scene was unexpectedly relaxed and inviting. Not the turnout I expected for such a prolific journalist and celebrated author. The young and bespectacled held plastic cups of white wine, perusing the displays of books or were perched on the bookstore’s oversized cement bleachers. Hamill sat on a low couch, talking in a friendly way with a slender woman next to him. He looked relaxed and grandfatherly, missing the hardened veneer I expected from the author of such a gritty novel.
My own assumptions led me to believe that it was Hamill’s embittered experiences that bled into the pages of the novel. I imagined Hamill was Briscoe, the aging but vigorous editor who was the main character of the novel. Consequently, I imagined Briscoe was my first journalism professor, also the same age, also once an editor. Sam Briscoe and my professor — let’s call him Professor Murphy — seemed to be cut from the same cloth. Both are in their seventies, hardened through pure dedication and completely unwavering in their methods. Why wouldn’t Hamill be too? I expected the worst. I pictured a doppelganger of Professor Murphy, whose “crew cut is steel gray, his lean, furrowed face tightly shaven,” like Briscoe. Murphy dressed like a reporter, always wearing a dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He may have been small in comparison to the character, but his intimidation factor extended far beyond his height. He deregistered students after missing two classes and threw them out for coming in late or forgetting their AP Stylebook. The man only smiled with a mocking twinkle in his glacial blue eyes, and stared at you silently until you were positive you were an idiot. Given this experience, I kept my expectations for pleasantness low.
The event coordinator, hipster-ish in bright red lips and a ’40s coif, gave Hamill a short introduction in front of the crowd of 30. He approached the microphone to fanatic praise, dressed in a simple, black short-sleeved shirt, brown slacks, silver-rimmed glasses and a short gray beard. With an old-fashioned Brooklyn accent, he introduced the passage with: “First, the old-guy glasses!” The room quieted as Hamill told the story of Consuelo Mendoza, a Mexican immigrant and mother of three, who embarks on a fearful trip home to Sunset Park after losing her job. The passage, only a few pages long, was a perfect representation of the novel — a stark and realistic portrayal of the looming crises New Yorkers like Consuelo face.
The novel doesn’t just focus on the job market, which seems to be trending in popular culture — in fact, Consuelo’s dilemma is only given a supporting role. Written in 2009, Tabloid City paints a dark and stirring portrait of our modern day Gotham City. The novel takes place during the dramatically symbolic “end of The World,” when the last remaining afternoon tabloid, New York World, folds.
But those 21 hours weren’t just the end of a tabloid; they were the end of “the world” in many ways. New York World’s editor-in-chief, Briscoe, loses his life’s work and his greatest love. Homeless and bound to a wheelchair, Iraq veteran Josh Thompson is left with nothing and carries his gun on his lap, wheeling around the city while he considers his own end. Ali Watson, from the Joint Terrorism task force, loses his wife in the same double homicide that shook Briscoe. His son, Malik, consumed by thoughts of jihad, plans his own end as a suicide bomber. Even Consuelo, bound by her immigration status, feels impending doom as she faces the dilemma of supporting her family.
No one in this book is having a great time. Tabloid City’s punch — the part that stays with you — was the depth and accuracy with which Hamill illustrated current issues that saturate the media and our minds. The underlying catalysts in the book, like the recession, the rise of “homegrown” terrorism and the dire future of our veterans, hollowed me out more and more until, in a sickening way, I was relieved when the action and suspense distracted me from reflection. In the same way, Hamill also gave a face to other specters haunting present-day New York City, like the swindlers of Wall Street and the frightening power of the Age of Google.
Luckily, the clever eccentricity that shines through Hamill’s characters keeps this from getting the Most Depressing Book award. You don’t need to be a journalist to appreciate the fanatic dedication that requires one to leap onto the sinking ship that is the newspaper industry. You can do nothing but admire those worthy of this bleak mission, the kind of people like the novel’s character Beverly Starr, an artist and creator of the comic The Charge of the Like Brigade. Her heroine is the grammatical action hero Like Mama, who claims “Valley Girls were the Muslim Brotherhood of this linguistic perversion.” There’s also Victoria Collins, a recent college graduate, struggling to find a reporting job while waiting tables. As a college student and intern myself, Collins’ tough luck made me cringe. The implications about the job market for any graduate would make most people do the same. Hamill makes no apologies for telling it like it is; this is the reality we have to face, and he shows us the characters who face it. They all reconcile the state of New York with their own embattled consciousness differently. It makes the reader question their own explanation for the state of things.
Despite Tabloid City’s timely relevance, it was easy to occasionally forget that the novel is set in the present day. The jaded, fedora-wearing editor, Sam Briscoe; the young, determined reporter Bobby Fonseca; the old-money F.P (Fucking Publisher) who has no redeeming qualities — they could all be transplants from a ’40s noir film. I pictured a grainy black-and-white image of Briscoe, suddenly resembling Cary Grant, throwing his trench coat over his shoulder as he says, “Richard, I’m a newspaperman.” Despite the contrast, the mix of current issues and familiar characters added cohesiveness to the novel. It reconciled New York’s bleak, uncertain future with the small comfort that some characters will always be there. In the newspaper business, those eccentrics who sacrifice their life to “the wood” are heroes. They will go down with the ship, like Briscoe’s crew, and go down fighting, bristling at the loss of tobacco permissions with bittersweet nostalgia.
After Hamill finished canvassing the troubles of Consuelo, he started to talk about the state of journalism, and I was taken aback by his positive outlook. It dawned on me that I might have relied too much on my previous conceptions about journalism and its advocates. What Briscoe mentioned in the novel, Hamill reiterated; 70 percent of the cost of newspapers goes to the paper, the ink and the trucks. With reserved optimism, he said that we might be reaching a different “Golden Age” of journalism with this shift away from paper. The potential is there. However, that hope can’t rely on the explosion of blogs and rants. It relies on real reporting, reporters who get paid and work that gets edited. It may be the end of “the world” as we know it, but a new one is starting. We can still celebrate the dedication of the newspapermen and embrace the transformation of the industry. Hamill explained that the shift of reporting will need facilitation. As readers, writers, editors and owners, we all have a role in saving journalism, just like the characters in Tabloid City.
The book launch came to an end, and the clapping trickled off as attendants queued at the register with their hardcover copies to be signed. My non-literary friend, charmed by the free booze, decided he would borrow the novel from me and appointed himself as my internship sidekick. Others struck up lighthearted conversations with Hamill, and I thought, how? I worked up the courage to ask him the question that still nagged me from the beginning: “Did you work any of yourself into the character of Sam Briscoe?” To my surprise, he said that he was more of a Helen Loomis, the quiet, faithful writer, smoking cigarettes and chained to the computer. The topic didn’t keep his attention for long, so I figured there was a good reason and let it go. He continued with a tangent about how NYU students should be careful with their drinking habits, a warning best explained by his memoir, A Drinking Life.
We stepped out into the twilight of DUMBO, and I thought about how different my perspective would have been if I skipped the event. I was relieved that Hamill proved to be more of a mystery than an affirmation of my experience. In fact, he was so mysterious that he signed my book with, “Always do the true work of the Lord.” I have no idea where that came from.