Tabloid City: bear witness to the death of a newspaper

The veteran US tabloid editor Pete Hamill's latest novel takes readers inside the New York World, the city's last afternoon newspaper on its final day of operation.

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Pete Hamill stands in a line of famous New York Irish newspaper columnists, midway between the great Jimmy Breslin, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and Michael Daly, the current king of the beat.

Hamill doesn't have Breslin's writing skills, but has done stalwart duty as a columnist and editor of both New York tabloids, the Daily News and the Post. His latest novel is Tabloid City, the tale of 24 hours in the life of the New York World, the city's last surviving afternoon newspaper.

The book's main character is Sam Briscoe, the paper's veteran editor, who faces a mounting pile of problems and who "moves swiftly [wherever he goes] as if eluding ambush by reporters and editors who might approach him for raises, days off, or loans. Or these days, for news about buyouts and layoffs."

The staff, it transpires, fear the paper's new owner, who only has eyes for online publishing and would happily stop the presses for good.

"Briscoe didn't know if anybody really cared," Hamill tells us, "except the people who made newspapers, the people he loved more than any others. In his mind's eye he sees the three young techies working on the World website in their small uptown office. Culling stories from the newspaper, from the AP and Reuters. Lots of raving blog messages from readers. This just in. Breaking news."

Briscoe and the veteran crime reporter Helen Loomis are (predictably) bitter about their lot and nostalgic for the boisterous, swaggering days of old.

Loomis runs through a mental roll call of former great writers and photographers, concluding: "All gone now, their names mere whispers in the tabloid wars. Too many are dead now. But even the living are MIA ... Now the photographers use digital cameras and send their images from computers."

From the newsroom, the plot widens to a legless Gulf War veteran, a socialite political activist, an embittered blogger, a dying artist in the Chelsea Hotel, a runaway financier, a Mexican hotel maid, a black American Muslim convert who wants to become a terrorist bomber and his police detective father who is determined to track him down. In all of this, it is the city that emerges as the real star, as Hamill flits from Greenwich Village to the Upper East Side, from Sunset Park to the South Street Seaport.

Plot lines and characters converge towards a bomb threat at a crowded fundraiser at Aladdin's Lamp, a new club in the hip Meatpacking District, where Bobby Fonseca, a young reporter, is on the case: "His back to the bar. He sips a drink. Thinking: Still here."

This passage points out a major flaw in the novel. The relentless staccato style of the interior monologues of all the characters, from high society ladies to wannabe street terrorists. They all think the same. Everything is delivered in short bursts. Very short.

Nevertheless, this is an exhilarating novel. Pete Hamill knows his newspapers and his New York. And like the death earlier this year of the News of the World across the Atlantic, the passing of the fictional New York World gives the reader some cause for mourning.