From "Beowulf" to "Gilgamesh," "Genji" to "The Iliad," fiction's ur-ancestors were blood-stirring picaresque tales, whose entertainments (whatever loftier purpose they may have served) invariably centered on a charismatic hero of amazing courage and virtue. Girl or boy, we as readers are likely to have discovered their direct descendants during childhood or adolescence when we were presented with a yarn spun by Robert Louis Stevenson or Howard Pyle or we lucked into the novels of Ian Fleming or a stash of Marvel Comics.
Stories like these depict moral certainties woven into a dangerous, chancy and often fantastical world. They warn and instruct. Their magic and certainty satisfy a hunger and -- for a while at least -- can dispel any growing fear.
In Pete Hamill's new novel, "Forever," 13-year-old Cormac O'Connor, son of a blacksmith in 1730s Ulster, is able to drink straight from the fountain of epic adventure. He rides a stallion named Thunder, his mother is descended from Hebrews who floated to Ireland during the Flood, and "his head was ... exuberantly brimming with drama and magic. From leathery Mary Morrigan, he heard wondrous tales of Cuchulain and his great warrior rages. And of Finn MacCool and how he assumed the leadership of the Fianna by getting rid of the killer of his father." The tales young Cormac absorbs, however, from the "forest people," the defiant, unchristian Irish-Irish, are not mere myth and allegory.
Soon his larger-than-life father, who could "lift carriages ... and swing the heaviest hammer as if it were a fork," will be murdered by caddish Englishman Earl of Warren. O'Connor pere will leave his son only a leather bag, holding a giant sword of his own forging. But true to his blood, Cormac holds dear the three inviolable rules. The first: "In our tribe the murderer must be pursued to the ends of the earth. And his male children too. They must be brought to the end of the line." The second rule: "Never oppress the weak ... [always] oppose human bondage," and the third, pronounced by Kongo, an African shaman: "In order to live, you must truly live. You cannot simply exist." This task doesn't sound all that difficult, unless, of course, one's life may run into centuries ... unto the possibility of forever.
A lifespan to trump Methuselah's, immune to aging, plus a crack at virtual immortality: That is the magical gift the gods bestow on Cormac, shortly after his perilous passage from Galway to New York in pursuit of the perfidious slave-trading Earl. Of course there's a condition. Should the hero ever leave the then rough-and-rustic island of Manhattan he'll die, condemned moreover to eternal nothingness, banished from the emerald-twinkling Otherworld.
In imagining this story-frame, New Yorker-to-the-bone Hamill opened for himself a grand prospect: a way to chronicle the ages of Manhattan from its tooth-and-claw infancy and ruthless corruption, through two centuries of pulsing vitality and metamorphosis, to our day's ashen taste of Armageddon -- through one man's eyes and memory.
With more than 600 pages, "Forever" is an old-style doorstopper. Yet it can feel tight for a writer with almost three centuries of the Western world's de facto capital to cover. In its mix of acute detail and clunky cliche, Hamill's prose style might be described as headlong in its a rush to cover great swatches of the panorama -- Washington's bivouac, Boss Tweed's jail cell, immigrant waves, strikes and scabs -- all the while following Cormac's private perambulations, his sometimes lusty, sometimes gore-splattered quest for revenge, and for the even more elusive sensation of love.
Significantly, the Irish hero's protectors are exclusively gods with a small "g," a harmonious family of druid and voodoo deities. Hamill's novel takes recurrent shots at the singular God, "monotheism, and how it has led to so many slaughters ....Love me or die! What a weird message." For Hamill and Cormac, goodness lies in loyalty, truth-telling, sensuality and, above all, the fight against bigotry and racism. "Forever's" insistent motif of black-white embrace, while unimpeachable, can feel awkwardly anachronistic, as when young O'Connor shares his dwindling ship's rations with the slaves below deck, rather than, for instance, with the Irish indentured who also happen to be dying like flies. Mermaids and flying horses are one thing, but a 1740s boy from the bogs imbued with the raised consciousness of a freedom rider marks the difference between willing suspension of disbelief and throwing credibility overboard.
"Forever" may not suit every reader's taste. Those who want fiction to shed much light on complexity of character or moral ambiguity, will want to look elsewhere. But if you have recently stood in line for "Harry Potter" or "Lord of the Rings," read this tale. As for Cormac O'Connor? As the decades pile on, he gains in humanity, doubt and frailty. Perhaps the gift of multiple lifetimes wasn't so much excess as necessity. After all, it sometimes takes a guy almost 300 years to let go of his apprehensions and learn to ... dance.
Little, Brown: 616 pages, $25.95