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A kindly doctor tends to wounds of the body and spirit

Like Jimmy Breslin before him and Gay Talese now, Pete Hamill is New York City. And therein lies the backdrop for "North River," a novel about a struggling doctor as the city emerges from the Depression and still refers to the Hudson River as the North River.

Hamill weaves a tender tale that relies heavily on the era in which it's set. As such, the reader learns about ethnic conflicts, post-prohibition Mafia wars, Tammany Hall politics and the poverty that choked New York in 1934.

The story revolves around Dr. James Delaney, a kind and generous neighborhood doctor who makes rounds on a bicycle and seldom gets paid for his medical deeds. He's friends with a Mafia boss he shared a foxhole with in France, and that friendship gets him entangled in a turf fight between rival crime lords.

Delaney has a wife who was last seen walking toward the river months before. He has a daughter who, unannounced, left the 3-year-old grandson he never knew on his doorstep so she could follow her revolutionary husband to Spain.

Hamill, in the short, punchy and poignant literary style that prevails in his previous 19 books, follows Dr. Delaney's life as he tries to heal the sick and his own emotional wounds.

Hamill does this with a gentleness that contrasts sharply with other works such as "Snow in August" or his memoir, "A Drinking Man's Life." Along the way the reader attends the funeral of baseball legend John McGraw, sees Coney Island and Grand Central Station through the awestruck eyes of a child, and watches a scrawny Italian crooner belt out wartime favorites at the Roseland.

Hamill even manages to tell a love story. Dr. Delaney enlists the help of a Sicilian woman to tend to his house and grandson while he tends to the sick. Rose has a past, too, one that includes killing her drunken, abusive husband and disposing of his body before fleeing to America.

Love also blooms between the grandfather and grandson, and between the nanny and her charge (although Hamill never describes Rose as a nanny; after all, what did inhabitants of Greenwich Village know about nannies during the Depression?).

It would be a stretch to label "North River" a suspense novel. But Hamill does manage to inject suspense. Will the angry mob boss retaliate for his perception that Dr. Delaney saved the life of his hated rival, even though the doctor cures his ailing mother of shingles?

Will Mrs. Delaney return and complicate the relationship the doctor has developed with his grandson's nanny? Or will the boy's mother show up to claim the son who has become the central focus of the two adults trying to raise him? Hamill provides the answers, like the rest of his novel, in a slow, gentle and tender way.

Lee Coppola is dean of the Jandoli School of Journalism at St. Bonaventure University.


North River

By Pete Hamill

Little, Brown, 341 pages, $25.99

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