Holiday Books 2012: Pete Hamill Brings Holiday Cheer to 1940s Brooklyn

It may be hard for some out-of-towners to believe, but the holiday season in New York City is not always fun. It doesn't necessarily involve lighthearted activities like shopping on 5th Avenue, and ice skating at Rockefeller Center.

Sometimes, the city is the worst place to be in December — gray slush on the streets, crowded stores, rude people, and commercial holiday paraphernalia everywhere. This urban slump, into which New Yorkers are bound to fall for at least a few days in the season, can be counteracted nicely by picking up Pete Hamill’s collection of short stories, The Christmas Kid: And Other Brooklyn Stories.

The title story of Hamill’s collection is a Brooklyn Christmas tale that hits just the right nostalgic chord. It follows a new friendship between a group of boys living in Park Slope right after WWII, and a tiny kid who arrives in the neighborhood to stay with his uncle after escaping a concentration camp.

The wholesome kindness of the neighborhood people pulls the narrative along. The two young protagonists teach the scared newcomer how to play baseball and learn the “important” English words (“bat, ball, base … Soda. Candy. Cops.”) They, along with a few adults, bring the outsider into the fold. The story could potentially become cliché, and enter Tiny-Tim land, but Hamill doesn’t let it happen. He strikes a tonal balance between cozy reminiscence and sharp, immediate sadness. 

Some of the other stories in the collection are not nearly as heartwarming. Instead, they trace the breakdown of Hamill’s childhood neighborhood, and involve mysteries and murders. One of the final stories in the collection is about a writer who grew up in Brooklyn, and left the city as a young man. As a successful writer, he comes back to his neighborhood to read from his latest book at a local bookstore, and all I can say without spoiling the story’s ending is that the event doesn’t turn out well at all for this fictional author.

So Hamill’s reading at the recently opened powerHouse on 8th bookstore in Park Slope Tuesday, which turned out to have a few situational particulars in common with that of the author in the story, involved a slightly eerie, but not unwelcome, meta-component.

With its various moods, Hamill’s collection mirrors the city itself, especially during the holidays. Tragedies and frustrations occur daily, as they always do here. But New York City's numerous small communities also thrive during the season, when there’s time for house parties, and long dinners. This holiday mix may not be uplifting, but like Hamill’s book, it’s unassumingly human.