SNOW IN AUGUST by Pete Hamill BOOK REVIEW and Comments
BELOW you will find a professional Review;
My humble comments will be below the professional comments.
May 4, 1997
By ROBERT LIPSYTE of The NEW YORK TIMES
Pete Hamill has written about old Brooklyn before; this time, he adds a dash of magic
SNOW IN AUGUST
omewhere between the Brooklyns of Chaim Potok and Spike Lee lies Pete Hamill’s brawling, brokenhearted borough, as gritty, sentimental and ultimately optimistic as its creator. In Mr. Hamill’s childhood Brooklyn of 50 years ago, Jackie Robinson, man and metaphor, danced off first base, bursting to lead the United States into postwar possibility while the legacies of hate against the Jews and the Irish clutched at his ankles.
In his blunt, didactic, pleasing style, Mr. Hamill has told versions of this story many times, in fiction and journalism. But in his new novel, ”Snow in August,” Mr. Hamill adds magic. This time, salvation is not in the Dodgers and Jackie, it is in the kabbala and the golem.
For 11-year-old Michael Devlin, a studious, thoughtful altar boy who lives alone with his mother, a war widow, Brooklyn has suddenly become dangerous, physically and spiritually. He and his friends watched 17-year-old Frankie McCarthy beat a Jewish candy-store owner into a coma for telling him to leave Michael and his friends alone. Yet Michael refuses to rat on the leader of the dreaded Falcons. Even Michael’s mother thinks there is nothing worse than an Irish informer, not to mention the risk of getting ”the mark of the squealer” from mouth to ear. Yet as the police close in, as the gang, the neighborhood and his own conscience begin to squeeze his character, Michael realizes that saying nothing will make him an accomplice to this and crimes to come.
For the first time in his life, there is no escape, not in movies, in baseball, in the rituals of the Roman Catholic Church, not even in his favorite comic book, ”Captain Marvel,” in which an ordinary boy need only say the word ”shazam” to become the mightiest man in the world. It was in a spooky stone cave, according to Marvel myth, that the secret word was given to the boy by a white-bearded Egyptian wizard.
Michael finds his own cave in a shabby neighborhood synagogue when the dark-bearded Rabbi Judah Hirsch pulls him off the street one Saturday morning to turn on the lights that the rabbi is forbidden to touch on the Sabbath. Michael becomes a paid ”Shabbos goy,” and then a friend of the rabbi, a lonely refugee from Prague. As the rabbi draws Michael into the mystical world of Jewish arcana, Michael leads him out to Ebbets Field. The rabbi easily relates to Robinson’s first season as ”the other” in the white national pastime.
Michael refines the rabbi’s English and in return learns enough Yiddish to get a discount on a Sunday suit on the Lower East Side. But such warm and funny scenes lead inevitably to further darkness. The Falcons assault Michael’s mother, and beat Michael and the rabbi so brutally they need to be hospitalized. The only power that can stop the gang is the greatest superhero of them all, the golem, a creature made from mud by someone pure of heart who knows the secret name of God. Mr. Hamill is not a subtle writer, but his gift for sensual description and his tabloid muscularity (he is currently the editor of The Daily News) fit this page turner of a fable. ”Snow in August” has a fable’s universal appeal, yet with the excision of a dozen or so of those words that make school library monitors go bats, it would be a perfect young-adult novel, especially for reluctant boy readers of whom teachers despair.
For all the violent set pieces — Mr. Hamill’s description of a beating can make a reader ache — there is a wonderful sweetness to this novel. The cops may be jerks and most of the adults ineffectual, but except for the Falcons — comic-book bad guys — the characters tend to be basically decent and want to do the right thing. But they would rather flee Brooklyn than fix it. Unlike Michael, they are unwilling or unable to dig deep enough into themselves to find the right thing, to be the everyday heroes who enter that scary place of the imagination where the spirit world meets the content of our character. REVIEW BY Robert Lipsyte
Robert Lipsyte, a columnist for the sports and City sections of The New York Times, is the author of a novel, ”The Contender.”
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