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book review

‘City on Fire’ by Garth Risk Hallberg

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Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel, “City on Fire,’’ comes trailing clouds of hyperbole. It is to be one of the biggest books of the fall, according to the publishing-industry buzz factory. Literally (it comes in at more than 900 pages) and figuratively (a multiperspective novel that tackles everything from the art world to arson, insider trading to radical squatting, gay life, racism, divorce, politics, education, and the music scene in mid-1970s New York City), this is an enormous book.

Expectations are high, and people are nervous, because the book has not only huge advance billing but also a huge advance (reported to be nearly $2 million) to live up to. And then there is matter of the film rights, which were snapped up even before the novel was sold.


All of which leads to the big question: Will it deliver?

Hallberg’s universe is populated by a diverse array of colorful characters. There’s William Hamilton-Sweeney, scion of the fabulously wealthy family (from which he is now estranged), a painter, former lead guitarist of a downtown cult band, and a drug addict. Charming, elusive, and incapable of fidelity, he drives his devoted boyfriend, Mercer (a black Southerner who teaches English at a girl’s school and harbors “wild ambitions” of becoming a major novelist) nearly wild with anxiety. Early on, Mercer forges an unlikely alliance with William’s sister, Regan, recently separated from her husband, Keith, and desperate to engineer a family reconciliation (shades of Franzen) as their father’s business falls apart.

Other major players: Sam Cicciaro, a fetching NYU student from Jersey who writes a zine; Charlie Weisbarger, the 17-year-old Jersey boy who pines for Sam and follows her into the downtown music scene; Nicky Chaos, the charismatic and drug-addled leader of an East Village squat with a yen for philosophical pronouncements; Richard Groskoph, a jaded journalist reinvigorated by a hot story; and Larry Pulaski, a cop straight out of Richard Price.


Pulaski joins the action when shots ring out on New Year’s Eve and a young woman’s body is found in Central Park. As she lies in a coma in a hospital bed, the mystery over who shot her and why deepens. That shooting and the blackout of July 13th, 1977 are the two nodes about which the characters unexpectedly connect via “networks and conspiracies,” compassion and understanding.

Formally, “City on Fire’’ is divided into seven “Books” interspersed with what Hallberg terms “interludes”: media accounts, letters, notebook entries, diaries, drafts of articles complete with cross-outs and coffee stains. It rather self-consciously positions itself as experimental, although its storytelling is generally quite straightforward.

The novel’s prologue strikes a well-honed note of ambivalent wistfulness, ending with an address to an unnamed reader that’s a simultaneous invocation of romantic possibility and a fever-dream of human connection:

“And you out there: Aren’t you somehow right here with me? I mean, who doesn’t still dream of a world other than this one? Who among us — if it means letting go of the insanity, the mystery, the totally useless beauty of the million once-possible New Yorks — is ready even now to give up hope?’’

I was right there with Risk Hallberg for about the first 150 pages but interest began to wane soon after. When the second Book flashes back 15 years to fill in gaps and provide strangely belabored back stories, any narrative momentum is stopped dead in its tracks. And while the writing is often good, it’s very rarely great.


“City on Fire’’ shows off the author’s erudition, his deep reading, his intelligence, and his commitment to producing something epic. But it lacks the vitality it describes; it’s oddly subdued, overly painstaking in its descriptions, and too often exhaustive rather than illustrative. True, we are treated to the author’s familiarity with arcana of 1970s New York City and mastery of the literature of urban hyper-consciousness (from “Bonfire of the Vanities’’ to DeLillo). But this kind of stream can stagnate without other sources of freshness, and the whole feels less than the sum of its parts.

“City on Fire’’ is determined to pursue big meanings, and it can be fascinating to watch Hallberg derive his semantics from the littlest and plainest bits and pieces. But sadly, the book never seems remarkable as it performs these stagey accretions. And if it isn’t quite great art, it also isn’t quite a page-turner; the central mystery fails to intrigue or come to a satisfying resolution. Hallberg’s values are admirable, his ambition impressive; he’s smart and thoughtful and talented. Perhaps the unexpected book that comes next, as an accidental consequence of the well-planned first, will be the finer vehicle of his inventions.


By Garth Risk Hallberg

Knopf, 944 pp., $30

Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’