"City On Fire" by Garth Risk Hallberg

I’d been waiting for this novel for over two years, ever since I first read about it. There’s been a lot of hype about this novel, mainly because it’s the author’s first novel and he secured a $2 Million advance for it after going through a bidding war from among 14 different publishers who desperately wanted this book. That, naturally, piqued my interest. I joked at the time that one could hear writers’ heads exploding the world over because of it. But what really piqued my interest more than anything else is the time frame in which the story is set — New York City, 1976-1977.


There was talk of Punk Rock, the gritty “bad old days”, The Blackout, but not much else was revealed about the plot. It was said that the novel was “ambitious”, and in some ways it is, mainly due to the sheer scope of the thing. But with all the hype and the word “ambitious” being thrown around so flippantly, one had to wonder what kind of novel “City On Fire” was going to be. Well, it finally came out, last month, and I finally got my hands on it, eager to read it. One other question I had on my mind: How was the author going to handle the time period being that he wasn’t even BORN yet? Not that one can’t write a novel set outside his/her own life time (many authors have done so). The answer to this question was answered almost immediately upon reading the novel. Hallberg handles it beautifully, subtly. He never throws the time period in your face. It simply exists as a frame in which the story takes place. A few cultural references here and there, a bit of description, and what it does is allow a reader who had lived through that time period bring the image to mind. For those readers who were too young to remember it, any old film, TV show or documentary will form the picture in their minds. It’s done so deftly that it almost becomes irrelevant with regard to the larger story taking place. It’s not overdone and a lesser writer (especially one of a more ‘hipster’ bent) would have been more over the top with the cultural references, beating you over the head with it. “IT’S THE 70s!”. Thankfully, Hallberg doesn’t do this and the effect is perfect. Back to being “ambitious”.


I suppose one could say that this novel is indeed ambitious. However it’s not what some readers may expect it to be. Hallberg’s prose style is very akin to Jonathan Franzen, Rick Moody, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Michael Chabon and it is these writers that I would align Hallberg with as a stylist. He’s a damn good writer, extremely talented, and the prose flows effortlessly. I’m sure the comparisons to Franzen will come up (although I think Hallberg is a much better writer). The novel is ambitious in scope, with a tinge of experimentalism such as inserting an entire issue of a (fictional) punk fanzine, as well as personal letters and a reporter’s article into the mix (as if they were photostats. Remember those?). Aside from these experimental digressions, the novel it most resembles, more than any other, is Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire Of The Vanities”. While Wolfe’s novel was THE novel that depicted the late 1980s New York, “City On Fire” could very well be the one that does the same for New York of the mid-1970s.


Again, the word “ambitious”: With all the hype surrounding the novel and the press the author has received for it, many readers may not be prepared for the kind of novel it ACTUALLY is at heart, and that is, a crime story. Populated with a host of characters, the novel’s length seems almost essential in order to fit everyone’s story into the mix — and each one of these characters are essential to the story itself. There’s Mercer and William, two lovers who live in the then wastelands of Hell’s Kitchen. Mercer is an aspiring novelist, coming to New York to write the “Great American Novel” but can’t seem to get the word down. He works as a teacher for a prestigious prep school. William is an heir of the Hamilton-Sweeney fortune, the black sheep of the family, and once the drummer of a 1974 era punk band named Ex Post Facto (then known as “Billy Three Sticks”). He wants nothing to do with his well to do family and is no longer playing in the band and has turned his talents towards the visual arts. He’s also a junkie, something he tries to hide from Mercer.


There’s Charlie and Sam, two Long Island teenage punks who regularly head into “the city” to catch punk rock bands and to get away from their hum-drum existence in the suburbs. Charlie, naturally, is in love with Sam and Sam may be in love with Charlie too but Sam has issues and she spends a lot of her time roaming around the East Village taking photographs of the remnants of Ex Post Facto and hanging around with them in their squat on the Lower East Side. The band, and squat mates, are made up of fucked up but colorful characters, all of whom try to live as “punk” as possible, their leader being a guy who calls himself “Nicky Chaos”, who sees himself as something of the groups “philosopher”, and he does so for a reason. The band has moved far beyond their musical aspirations towards more political ones, dubbing themselves “Post Humanists”. And they have plans.


There’s Keith and William’s sister Regan — a well to do couple who live on the Upper East Side with their two children. Their marriage is falling apart and this is due to Keith’s chance encounter with Sam. Sam is in love with this much older man and her insistence on not letting go leads to a tragedy one night as she splits from Charlie to head uptown to see him for one last time. She winds up being shot in Central Park on New Year’s Eve, 1976. Mercer, who was at a party at the time, happens to hear the gunshots, finds Sam’s body in the park. Calls the police. Here is how the reader can see how all the characters are eventually going to come together, how their paths will cross, and what it will all lead to.


An older NYPD inspector, an alcoholic reporter, and the city coming apart at the seams, all these paths will eventually lead to one point and that climaxes on the night of July 13th 1977, the night of The Blackout. The pace of the novel is handled very well and Hallberg has a way of keeping the reader gripped as he leaves one hanging only to go back in time to further connect the dots, showing the lives of the characters going back over the previous 20 years. Who they are and who they will eventually become and how it seems all but inevitable that these lives will all bump into one another. But while it’s fun to read about a New York that once was, at it’s core “City On Fire” is a murder mystery (or a ‘Police Procedural’). It has a plot, as looping and as, well, ambitious as it is. This is not the stuff of “LITERARY FICTION”, and some readers may be turned off by this. Hallberg does a fantastic job making these characters real, three dimensional, with fully fleshed out lives. No character is “cookie cutter” (except for perhaps William’s Austrian art dealer and her Asian-American assistant Jenny, who will play a more pivotal role as the story progresses). Underneath some of the experimental elements, the more literary approach to the character’s lives, it is essentially a crime story, nothing more, nothing less and one could easily see this being turned into a big film one day (or perhaps a television mini-series. There’s enough there for at least two full seasons). But this is not my criticism about the book.


My one criticism is that the novel is perhaps a little TOO long and it could have been just as good with some of it cut out. Not everything NEEDED to be there and one gets the sense that Hallberg was so in love with his characters that he had a hard time letting them go. Definitely worth checking out. It’s a tightly plotted story, and suspenseful, and thoughtful as well. It’s another example of how blending genres can make some interesting fiction. For those expecting something more “Literary”, you may be somewhat disappointed by “City On Fire”. It’s NOT that kind of novel. However, it’s a damn good novel, with an engrossing tale to tell. It’s all about the characters and you will love them as much as the author apparently did. Oh, and one last, curious thing: The bulk of the novel takes place between the summers of 1976 and 1977 and not ONCE, not even a passing reference, is made about The Son Of Sam, who terrorized the city during that same period. Not that it was essential to the story (it would have made no difference) but his presence from the scene is curiously absent, especially since the core of the story revolves around a shooting. I wonder why this is? 

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