I started reading Pete Hamill’s critically acclaimed Forever when I was a senior in high school. For some reason I don’t remember, I stopped reading 150 pages in and ever since then I’ve been meaning to come back to it. Now that I’ve finally read this book I think I remember why it didn’t hold my teenage attention: one word to perfectly describe this book would be “uneven.”
Forever tells the story of a young boy in 18th century Ireland whose family follows the Old Religion of the ancient Celts. They believe in the Otherworld and the Irish gods. Cormac O’Connor learns about his heritage and his secret religion, and then finds his world turned upside down when both of his parents are murdered by a rich man named the Earl of Warren. Cormac’s religion states very clearly that murder must be avenged, and that the sons and daughters of the murderer must also be killed. The family must come to the end of the line. Cormac’s mission is now clear.
Because the Earl has fled to the small colonial town that New York City was in 1741, Cormac O’Connor must go to hunt him down, and while he’s there, he finds himself embroiled in the struggle for freedom—for the African slaves, and eventually, for the new United States of America. During his frequent battles, he saves the life of an African slave named Kongo. As a gift, Kongo bestows upon Cormac eternal life as long as he never leaves the island of Manhattan. Boom. All of the threads of an excellent story seem woven into this book. But truly, it sounds better on the back cover than it actually is.
This book kept losing my attention, and it’s truly rare that I ever want to abandon a book mid-read. Because the narrative is so punctuated across 260 years, the story never develops fully enough to make the reader care. The story first jumps thirty years each section, and then in the last, goes from the late 1800s to 2001 for seemingly no other reason than the author was tired of creating these period episodes and decided to tell the character’s 20th century story in anecdotal form. It did not seem well thought out. Sometimes I read at a gallop, at others I didn’t pick the book up for days because the narrative was so stagnant and limp.
Cormac as a character is pretty unbelievable and at times, wholly unlikeable. He doesn’t have to be likable necessarily, but the author makes it clear that we’re supposed to admire this man, and it’s hard to. He’s a bit of a misogynist. Also, his life’s purpose is to track down and kill all the descendants of the man who killed his parents, people who have no culpability in that crime, all to adhere to the strictures of an ancient religion that the author makes clear is inherently superior to any form of Christianity. Only by killing these innocent people will Cormac be able to avenge his father and reunite with him in the Celtic Otherworld, their heaven. Eh. And even though he’s semi-aware of the immorality of his mission, he never feels remorse or even PTSD for all the killing he’s done.
I also found his character totally unbelievable because the author fails to incorporate elements like accent, the varieties of language and the total overhaul of customs and culture that Cormac is sure to have been influenced by in his 260+ years in New York. Cormac mentions that the computer has changed culture the same way that the printing press did in earlier decades, but there is no description of his language peculiarities or his accent that others are sure to find confusing.
The English language has changed unrecognizably since the 1740s, not just slang or common phrases, but how it’s spoken and pronounced. I find it so ridiculous that this isn’t even mentioned. Even in freaking Twilight, Bella mentions that Edward’s language and his accent are weird. But not in this critically-acclaimed bestseller?
Cormac, in this novel, feels like he’s just walking through his eternal life, not like he’s being influenced by it at all. It feels all too self-indulgent, too neat, too cool, like author’s wish fulfillment. Cormac isn’t a real person in these pages. It’s like Cormac is just a vehicle put there so the author can name drop all the endless historical and cultural figures that have appeared on New York streets, and imagine himself meeting all of them.
The last “phase” of the novel is in September 2001, and obviously included are the horrors of the attacks on the World Trade Center. The last hundred pages of the novel are littered with heavy-handed foreshadowing I found totally amateur, and I also felt like including 9/11 was gratuitous and irreverent. I would have liked it to have ended with Cormac passing into the Otherworld without having witnessed that. It would have felt more poignant and more respectful.
Still, sometimes it was beautiful, real and well turned out. Sometimes:
“I don’t know what that means. To truly live.”
“To find work that you love, and work harder than other men. To learn the languages of the earth, and love the sounds of the words and the things they describe. To love food and music and drink. Fully love them. To love weather, and storms, and the smell of rain. To love heat. To love cold. To love sleep and dreams. To love the newness of each day.”
Overall, I’d give this book 2 1/2 stars. So many times while reading I just wanted to finish it already. I thought, “this book never ends,” and then I thought how ironic that was considering it’s called Forever!
Also: sentence fragments. So many sentence fragments. I wanted to go all writers-workshop-obnoxious on his ass and cross them all out.
Sorry, Pete Hamill.