City on Fire: A novel
Nothing says exceptionalism like a debut author winning a two-million-dollar advance.
For one such debut, City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg takes readers into one of New York City’s richest eras: the mid-1970s, including and culminating in the July 1977 blackout, an event that fell squarely in a major heat wave. Anyone who lived through that era knows that New York was a different place back then—gritty, dangerous.
The novel then rotates through a cast of characters during this time period, cutting a wide cross-section of the city.
In large part, it focuses on the dysfunctions of the aristocratic Hamilton-Sweeney family. The heir apparent is also the most interesting character: William Hamilton-Sweeney III, a former-punk-rocker turned visual artist, who is settling into domestic life with his lover, a black high-school teacher from the South. Until he disappears for the bulk of the novel, “Billy Three Sticks,” as the former is known to many, is an enigma—blithe, detached—the perfect foil for his codependent lover. It’s hard to imagine and harder to ignore such a man living as a completely out-and-open homosexual just seven years after Stonewall, but Hallberg makes little indication that he ever encounters discrimination, instead devoting the lion’s share of the novel to the rest of the family:
- His sister Regan, and her ex-husband Keith, who’s just had an affair with a college girl
- Their two children
- Their father and his wife
- And their father’s brother-in-law
In these sections dominated by infidelity and internecine family drama, it’s easy to see where comparisons to Franzen abound. But the cast list grows. Other sections of the novel follow a young group of characters immersed in the punk scene:
- Sam, a young photography student at NYU
- Charlie, a high school kid with a crush on Sam
- Nicky Chaos, Sewer Girl, and a number of other anarchists who are squatting on an East Village property, making music, and setting fire to abandoned buildings
. . . And the cast grows. There are at least another ten characters that duck in and out of the pages, including a polio-hobbled veteran cop investigating a shooting in Central Park and a journalist writing a human interest piece on fireworks.
One event starts the engine of the book, an event the jacket copy says ties all these characters together, and that’s a New Year’s Eve shooting in Central Park. It’s an event that sets readers up to expect a mystery unraveled, of many dots slowly and scrupulously connected until they reveal themselves in the end. And this promise is what gets you through the first couple hundred pages.
The shooting, however, proves to be the narrative engine Hallberg uses to prop up (and drop in) hundreds of pages after that of flashback and character study. Major plot points regularly happen off the page, often in retrospect. As the novel progresses, it’s hard to buy that such an unremarkable shooting is stealing headline space from serial killer Son of Sam, particularly during the lawless nadir of New York City, not so long after Kitty Genovese.
Ultimately, you reach that point in a big book that’s gotten reckless with the number of questions it poses: You must wait with bated breath to see whether the author has the chops to pull it all off.
Instead, there is a sense in reading this book that one is just making it to the next section. Divided into seven books, the novel is marked out by dates, and bookended by designed interludes—a punk-rock fan zine, a letter, a typewritten article complete with coffee stains. (With as many fonts and photos as the book includes, it’s worth noting that the design adds little to the book besides breaking it up into chunks of paper edged in black—little pats on the back to congratulate the reader on making it through another chunk.)
There is no question that Hallberg is a fine researcher and stylist, one who could hold court with the best, and there are too many places to count where the prose sings.
In just as many spots, though, his intimidating vocabulary gets better of him (a quality he shares even with his high-school age characters, who throw around phrases like chaque a son goût and caveat emptor). The sky “as usual” is “perfervid.” “Heteronormative” gets thrown in at least 23 years before it was, at best, a common term; and the journalist character peppers his article with words like “quondam” and “divagations”—raising the spectral question of just what publication he’s writing for.
It’s a small bone to pick, but it gets at the heart of where the novel falters. What begins as an intriguing premise, one set in a rich period and even richer place, becomes instead an exercise in self-indulgence. For the author, perhaps, an exercise in the excitement of writing a big important book. For the publisher, the excitement of catching a phenomenon before it’s a phenomenon.