Snow in Augustby Pete Hamill
In the year 1947, Michael Devlin, eleven years old and 100 percent American-Irish, is about to forge an extraordinary bond with a refugee of war named Rabbi Judah Hirsch. Standing united against a common enemy, they will summon from ancient sources a power in desperately short supply in modern Brooklyn-a force that's forgotten by most of the world but is known to… See more details below
In the year 1947, Michael Devlin, eleven years old and 100 percent American-Irish, is about to forge an extraordinary bond with a refugee of war named Rabbi Judah Hirsch. Standing united against a common enemy, they will summon from ancient sources a power in desperately short supply in modern Brooklyn-a force that's forgotten by most of the world but is known to believers as magic.
In postwar working-class Brooklyn, Irish Catholic Michael Devlin, 11, is obsessed with comics, worships Captain Marvel, and wonders why shouting SHAZAM! doesn't turn him into a superhero. His naiveté is crucial to the story, it turns out, since this slice-of-life tale metamorphoses at the finish completely and unexpectedly into fantasy. Michael and two friends are in Mr. Greenberg's candy store when psychopathic bully Frankie McCarthy, 17, comes in, beats up friendly "Mister G," and drops the cash register onto the owner's head, putting him into a coma. Although Michael is a witness, the code of the Irish goes against being a squealer. As his widowed mother Kathleen reminds him, Judas was the world's worst informer. Frankie is detained by the police and lets Michael know that he'll get his face carved up if he turns rat. For good measure, Michael is beaten up by Frankie's gang, the Falcons, who break his leg. After he's released from the hospital, he's attacked again, along with Kathleen. She still won't let Michael rat on Frankie, but she plans to move to Bay Ridge. Meantime, Michael has become the goy who works on the Jewish sabbath for a very poor rabbi. While the rabbi teaches him Yiddish in return for Michael's correcting his own English, the two become richly involved in the career of Jackie Robinson, the first black player to crack the majors. The rabbi also tells Michael about Rabbi Loew's golem, the Captain Marvel of the Jews. When Michael hears that Frankie McCarthy has got a pistol and intends to kill him, he decides to summon up a superhero of his own.
A slow-moving opening, with Hamill as earnestly humorless as ever, but the time-warp element and terrific descriptions will appeal to many.
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Snow in August
By Pete Hamill
Warner BooksCopyright © 1998 Pete Hamill
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOnce upon a cold and luminous Saturday morning, in an urban hamlet of tenements, factories, and trolley cars on the western slopes of the borough of Brooklyn, a boy named Michael Devlin woke in the dark.
He was eleven years and three months old in this final week of the year 1946, and because he had slept in this room for as long as he could remember, the darkness provoked neither mystery nor fear. He did not have to see the red wooden chair that stood against the windowsill; he knew it was there. He knew his winter clothes were hanging on a hook on the door and that his three good shirts and his clean underclothes were neatly stacked in the two drawers of the low green bureau. The Captain Marvel comic book he'd been reading before falling asleep was certain to be on the floor beside the narrow bed. And he knew that when he turned on the light he would pick up the comic book and stack it with the other Captain Marvels on the top shelf of the metal cabinet beside the door. Then he would rise in a flash, holding his breath to keep from shivering in his underwear, grab for clothes, and head for the warmth of the kitchen. That was what he did on every dark winter morning of his life.
But this morning was different.
Because of the light.
His room, on the top floor of the tenement at 378 Ellison Avenue, was at once dark and bright, with tiny pearls of silver glistening in the blue shadows. From the bed, Michael could see a radiant paleness beyond the black window shade and gashes of hard white light along its sides. He lay there under the covers, his eyes filled with the bright darkness. A holy light, he thought. The light of Fatima. Or the Garden of Eden. Or the magic places in storybooks. Suddenly, he was sure it was like the light in the Cave of the Seven Deadly Enemies of Man. That secret place in the comic book where the faceless man in the black suit first took Billy Batson to meet the ancient Egyptian wizard named Shazam. Yes: the newsboy must have seen a light like this. Down there, beyond the subway tunnel, in that long stone cave where the white-bearded wizard gave him the magic word that called down the lightning bolt. The lightning bolt that turned the boy into Captain Marvel, the world's mightiest man.
Michael knew that the magic word was the same as the name of the wizard: Shazam! And he had learned from the comic book that the letters of the name stood for Solomon, Hercules, and Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury. Ancient gods and heroes. Except for Solomon, who was a wise king from Bible days. Mighty symbols of strength, stamina, power, courage, and speed. They weren't just names in a comic book either; Michael had looked them up in the encyclopedia. And their powers were all combined in Captain Marvel. On that night in the mysterious cave, the wizard named Shazam told Billy Batson he had been chosen to fight the forces of evil because he was pure of heart. And no matter how sinister his enemies were, no matter how monstrous their weapons, all he needed to fight them was to shout the magic word. Shazam!
Alas, on the streets of the parish, the magic word did not work for Michael Devlin and his friends, and for at least three years they had debated the reasons. Maybe they needed to get the powers directly from the Egyptian wizard. Maybe the word didn't work because they weren't pure enough. Or because, as his friend Sonny Montemarano put it, Captain Marvel was just a story in a fucking comic book. Still, Michael insisted, it might be true. Who could ever know? Maybe all they had to do was believe hard enough for it to happen.
Michael was snapped back into the present by the sound of the wind. First a low moan. Then a high-pitched whine. A trombone choir, then a soprano saxophone. Tommy Dorsey's band, and then Sidney Bechet. The names and music he had learned from the radio. It sounded to Michael like the voice of the light. He sat up, his heart pounding, wondering what time it was, afraid that he had overslept, and swung his feet around to the floor. They landed on the Captain Marvel comic book.
I wish I didn't have to do this, he thought. Sometimes being an altar boy was a huge pain in the ass. I wish I could just lie in bed and listen to the wind. Instead of dragging myself all the way to Sacred Heart to mouth a lot of mumbo jumbo in a language nobody even speaks. I wish I could fall back into this warm bed, pull the covers around me, and sleep.
But he did not sink back into the warmth. In his mind, he saw his mother's disappointed face and Father Heaney's angry eyes. Worse: he felt suddenly alarmed, as if he had come close to the sin of sloth. Even Shazam warned against sloth, listing it among the Seven Deadly Enemies of Man, and Shazam wasn't even a Catholic. The word itself had a disgusting sound, and he remembered a picture of an animal called a sloth that he'd seen in a dictionary. Thick, furry, nasty. He imagined it growing to the size of King Kong, waddling wetly through the city, stinking of filth and laziness and animal shit. A dirty goddamned giant sloth, with P-38s firing machine guns at it, the bullets vanishing into the hairy mush of its formless body, its open mouth a pit of slobber. Jesus Christ.
So Michael did not even raise the black window shade. He grabbed his trousers, thinking: The antonym for sloth must be self-denial. Or movement. Or a word that said get off your ass, get up and go. When the priests, brothers, and nuns were not drilling them in synonyms or antonyms or the eleven times table, they were forever hammering away about self-denial. And so, buttoning his fly in the dark, he refused himself the pleasure of pulling the shade aside, or rolling it up, and thus revealing the source of the luminous light. He would wait. He would put off that vision. He would offer up his discomfort, as his teachers commanded him to do, for the suffering souls in Purgatory. Be good. Be pure. Accept some pain and thus redeem those who are burning for their sins. He could hear the chilly orders of his catechism teachers as clearly as he could hear Shazam.
Shirtless and shoeless, he hurried through the dark living room and past his mother's closed bedroom door to the kitchen, which faced the harbor of New York. The fire in the coal stove had guttered and died during the night, and the linoleum floors were frigid on his bare feet. He didn't care. Now he would deny himself no longer. He lifted the kitchen window shade, and his heart tripped.
There was the source of the light.
Still falling on the rooftops and backyards of Brooklyn.
Snow now so deep, so dense and packed, that the world glowed in its blinding whiteness.
The thrilling view pebbled his skin. It had been snowing for two days and nights, great white flakes on the first day and then harder, finer snow driven by the wind off the harbor. The boy had seen nothing like it. Ever. He could remember six of his eleven winters on the earth, and there had never been snow like this. This was snow out of movies about the Yukon that he watched in the Venus. This was like the great Arctic blizzards in the stories of Jack London that he read in the library on Garibaldi Street. Snow that hid wolves and covered automobiles and crushed cabins and halted trolley cars. Snow that caused avalanches to cover the entrances of gold mines and snow that cracked limbs off trees in Prospect Park. Snow from a mighty storm. The night before, someone on the radio said that the blizzard had paralyzed the city. Here it was, the next morning, and the snow was still coming down, erasing the world.
He stepped into the narrow bathroom off the kitchen, closing the door behind him. The tiles were colder than the linoleum. His teeth chattered. He urinated, pulled the chain to flush, and then washed his face quickly in the cold water of the sink, thinking: I will go into it; I will face the storm, climb the hard hills, push into the wind of the blizzard to the church on the hill. Father Heaney, a veteran of the war, will celebrate the eight o'clock mass, and I will be there at his side. The only human being to make it through the blizzard. Even the old ladies in black, those strange old biddies who make it to church through rainstorms and heat waves, even they will fail to make it through the storm. The pews will be empty. The candles will flicker in the cold. But I will be there.
His heart raced at the prospect of the great test. He didn't care now about the souls in Purgatory. He wanted the adventure. He wished he had a dogsled waiting downstairs. He wished he could bundle himself in furs and lift a leather whip and urge the huskies forward, shouting, Mush, boys, mush! He had the serum in a pouch and by God, he would get it to Nome.
He combed his hair, and when he stepped out of the bathroom, his mother, Kate, was raking the ashes in the coal stove, her flannel robe pulled tightly around her, worn brown slippers on her feet. Steam leaked from her mouth into the frigid air. A teapot rested on the black cast-iron top of the stove, waiting for heat.
"Let me do that, Mom," the boy said. "That's my job."
"No, no, you're already washed," she said, in her soft Irish accent, a hair of irritation in her voice. Raking the dead ashes was one of Michael's chores, but in his excitement over the blizzard, he'd forgotten. "Just go and get dressed."
"I'll do it," he said, taking the flat shovel from her and digging the ashes out of the bottom tray. He poured them into a paper bag, a gray powder rising in the air to mix with the steam from his breath, then shoveled fresh coal from the bucket onto the grate. The fine ash made him sneeze.
"For the love of God, Michael, get dressed," she said now, pushing him aside. "You'll catch your death of cold."
Back in his room, at the far end of the railroad flat, he pulled an undershirt over his head and a dark green shirt on top of it, shoving the tails into his trousers. After tugging galoshes over his shoes, he finally raised the blackout shade. The snow was piled against the windowpane at least two feet above the steel slats of the fire escape. Beyond the steep drift, snow swirled like a fog so dense he could not see across Ellison Avenue. He hurried back into the kitchen. A fire was burning now in the coal stove, its odor staining the air like rotten eggs. He wished his mother would buy the Blue Coal advertised on The Shadow; it was harder-anthracite, they said in school-with almost no smell. But she told him once that they couldn't afford it and he never asked again.
"I'm sure you could stay home if you like, Michael," she said, the irritation out of her voice now. "They know how far you have to come."
"I can do it," he said, combing his hair, choosing not to remind her that the church was eight blocks from 378 Ellison Avenue. From the backyards he heard a sound that he was sure was the howling of a thousand wolves.
"Still," she said, pouring water for tea, "it's a terrible long way in this storm."
He followed her glance to the wall clock: seven twenty-five. He had time. He was certain that she also looked at the framed photograph of his father. Thomas Devlin. Michael was named for his mother's father, who had died in Ireland long ago. The photograph of his own father was hanging beside the picture of President Roosevelt that she'd cut out of the Daily News magazine when he died. For a moment, Michael wondered what she thought about when she looked at the picture of his father. The boy didn't remember many details about the man she called Tommy. He was a large man with dark hair and a rough, stubbled beard who had gone off to the army when Michael was six. And had never come back. In the framed formal photograph, he was wearing his army uniform. The skin on his smiling face looked smooth. Much smoother than it actually felt. His hair was covered by the army cap, but at the sides it was lighter than the boy remembered. That brown hair. And a deep voice with an Irish brogue. And a blue Sunday suit and polished black shoes. And a song about the green glens of Antrim. And stories about a dog he had as a boy in Ireland, a dog named Sticky, who could power a boat with his tail and fly over mountains. His mother surely remembered much more about him. The boy knew his father had been killed in Belgium in the last winter of the war, and thought: Maybe the blizzard reminds her of Tommy Devlin dead in the snow, a long way from Brooklyn. Maybe that's why she's irritated. It's not my lollygagging. It's the snow.
"I wish you could eat something," she said, sipping her tea, but not pouring a cup for Michael because she knew he could neither eat nor drink before serving mass.
"I've got to receive Communion, Mom."
"Well, hurry home. There'll be bacon and eggs."
Usually he was famished and thirsty on mornings before mass, but the excitement of the storm was driving him now. He took his mackinaw from the closet beside the front door.
"Wear a hat, lad," she said.
"This has a hood, Mom," he said, "and it's real warm. Don't worry."
She took the starched surplice from the clothesline and covered it with butcher paper, closing the wrapping with Scotch tape. Then she kissed him on the cheek as he opened the door to the hall. Halfway down the first flight of stairs, he glanced back, and she was watching him go, her arms folded, her husband smiling from the wall behind her, right next to the dead president of the United States.
I wish she wasn't so sad, he thought.
And then, leaping down the three flights of stairs to the street, he braced himself for the storm.
Excerpted from Snow in August by Pete Hamill Copyright © 1998 by Pete Hamill. Excerpted by permission.
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