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Miss the Good Ole Days of Journalism?

Pete Hamill’s thriller is an obit to old-school

Book Cover image for Tabloid City

"For a novel that laments the death of old media, Tabloid City behaves a lot like a newfangled news aggregator." — Courtesy Little, Brown and Company

These multiple protagonists often feel less like human beings than spokespeople: Helen Loomis is an old-school crime reporter who misses the days when she could smoke in the newsroom. Myles Compton is a hedge-fund manager angling to flee the country after perpetrating a Madoffian fraud. Beverly Starr is an artist who reminds us that comic strips were big and splashy on newsprint before the Web smashed them to pixels. Josh Thompson is an angry paraplegic Iraq war vet concealing a MAC-10 in his wheelchair. And in a class to himself is Freddie Wheeler, a former World reporter turned gossip blogger who breaks the news that their beloved daily is shutting down and will henceforth appear only online. Hamill’s chosen tone for this character is a mix of Walter Winchell and Boris Badenov: “In a few hours … must raise a fist in the air … and curse Briscoe … and proclaim the end of the World.”

For a novel that laments the death of old media, Tabloid City behaves a lot like a newfangled news aggregator, earnestly striving to capture a universe of perspectives in a single digital corral. Yet charming moments bubble up within that unwieldy structure. Through Lew Forrest, an aging artist who now lives in the Hotel Chelsea (and financially supports a down-on-her-luck former muse), Hamill takes a swipe at a New York City art world that has grown greedy and highfalutin. And Hamill can effortlessly summon the clipped, prickly language of a James Ellroy or a Richard Price: “His head throbs. Two dead. Stabbed and sliced. Fresh blood on the floor. Eyes wide in shock, for sure.” A few fine sentences display a noirish glint: As Helen smokes her precious Marlboro Lights inside her East Village apartment, for example, she recalls the criminals she wrote about, “all of them pleading Guilty, With an Explanation. The title of every human being’s biography.”

Savor such lines, for Tabloid City will soon be rushing toward its contrived conclusion at a mosque-turned-nightclub.

In Hamill’s introduction to Piecework, the 1996 collection of his journalism that is still the best place to get to know him, the author recalls striving to write the way Gene Krupa played drums: “I wanted that rhythm in the sentences,” he tells us. “I wanted to add some gaudy word to serve for splash on the cymbals.” But syncopating a dozen or so characters and social commentaries can tax the timekeeping powers of even the best writer.

Reviewer Mark Athitakis maintains the literary blog American Fiction Notes.

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