Wednesday, September 24, 2008

New York, New York

There’s nothing like a good “gangsta” story to pass the hours when one is sick. I was lucky to have North River by Pete Hamill on hand when I was waylaid recently by an infection. Actually, while the mob element of the story is significant (more on that later), the central portrait of this novel is that of a family doctor practicing his craft in depression-era (1934) New York City. It’s a picture of medicine that, if it still exists at all, certainly has long ago left NYC. The doctor has his office in his home and rides off on his bicycle in the afternoon to make house calls.

The doctor James Delaney is living alone in Greenwich Village when his 3-year-old grandson is unexpectedly left on his doorstep while the child’s mother, Delaney’s daughter, goes off in search of her run-away husband. So it is in introducing the boy to life in NYC that the doctor/author also paints for the reader a deeply affecting portrait of New York life at that time including the Metropolitan Museum, the Polo Grounds, the St. Patrick’s Day parade, the local Italian bakery and shoe repair, hot dogs, the subway, Tammany Hall, the bruised wives and the inevitable lines of the homeless. The sketches are rich in detail and seamlessly woven into the story.

There is the predictable gang war between two mob families and Dr. Delaney finds himself almost literally in the crossfire. He has a loyalty to one side that goes back to his days in World War I; and he has his physician’s loyalty to a patient on the other. When provided by a mobster with a substantial amount of (much-needed) cash for services rendered, the doctor has to resolve his own moral dilemma: when you know that the money came from unlawful sources but you can use the money to do good (however that may be defined), are you justified in taking it? Does it make a difference if you will donate it to feed the homeless or if you will use it to buy clothes for your grandson?

I think you would enjoy this book – even if you aren’t sick.