Books

Garth Risk Hallberg
City on Fire

For a book so stuffed with narratives, it almost seems unfair that the reader of City on Fire has to make room for one more. In 2013, it was widely reported that Knopf, in the United States, had paid $2 million to publish it, by some estimates the highest North American advance for a debut novel. The film rights had already sold to Academy Award-winning producer Scott Rudin.

Add that City on Fire is more than 900 pages, and you understand the stakes are high for Garth Risk Hallberg: this is either the book of the year or its most spectacular failure, which is a lot of weight for a thirtysomething author to saddle. 

But it’s immediately obvious why this novel excited both publishers and producers. It’s really a terrific book: textured, thoughtful and fun. 

It begins with the shooting of a 17-year-old girl in Central Park on New Year’s Eve 1976, and ends with the anarchic citywide blackout of July 13, 1977, the latter a hundred-page stretch where Hallberg’s sprawling cast rushes through the burning city in scattered directions, on missions of great urgency. Couples uncouple, mysteries are unveiled and fates are sealed. If ever a literary novel climaxed with a cinematic set piece, it’s this one.

In between, Hallberg yanks hard and often on the gears of an enormous plot machine. While that girl’s life hangs in the balance (she was left for dead in the park), there’s a looming indictment, stolen explosives, a sordid affair, multiple scenes of arson, a shady suicide, a secret pregnancy, a missing person, junkies, punk rock and graffiti sprees. Some of it is much ado about not very much. When certain subplots involve rich people screwing over other rich people, the specifics can feel bitchy and hard to care about. But almost all of it is well handled and brilliantly diverting. It all adds up to a caper, a real yarn. Clues to how it fits together are found in manuscripts, zines, and letters written by the key players and interleaved throughout the book, each of which gives the third-person narration a nice bit of breathing room.

In a full-bodied ensemble, the heart is Mercer Goodman, a black southerner who showed up at the Port Authority Bus Terminal already “swanning with Jay Gatsby around an imaginary Gotham” in his mind. He quickly becomes involved with William Hamilton-Sweeney, the long-exiled son of a prominent financier, who is also known to some New Yorkers as Billy Three-Sticks, frontman of a punk band that may or may not have broken up. They each have secrets – William’s the worst – and a lot of love for each other, and the result is a relationship that vacillates often between love, dependence, selfishness, distance, exhaustion, and, for both parties, the will to become better people, ideally not at the expense of someone else. Of all the characters, they’re perhaps the two least directly connected to the macro-structure, but they are also the chief source of the book’s warmth.

A nearly automatic advantage of the sprawling social novel is that you simply get to spend a lot of time with everybody. We know from an early stage that William is a rich white boy with a thing for black neighbourhoods. When, on page 724, we briefly glimpse the first time these areas stirred him, it’s a tiny connection, but one of many, which eventually add up to a satisfying feeling, a lot like making a friend. 

But even in short stretches, character is the book’s strength. Most of Hallberg’s people feel alive when briefly sketched in first appearances, usually observed from another character’s point of view. Regan, William’s sister, eventually gets a complex backstory, one of the more skewed and surprising of anyone’s in the book. But when the novel reveals this, through performing one of its careful shifts back in time – it covers decades, even stretching forward into the 2000s – Regan’s history does not really shed light on her world view. Instead, her past makes you better appreciate someone you already knew, via her dialogue and her relations with other people (in this case a short scene at the school where Mercer teaches).

New York in the ’70s, so history tells us, was a mean, messy place with a centre that could not hold. Here, one character, a sufficiently grizzled detective, thinks it’s as though “the ’60s had tipped the entire country on end ... until all the flakes ended up in the East Village”. The city is either thriving or dying, and the blackout doesn’t so much cause its populace to slide into lawlessness as steepen its descent. According to critics who were there, Hallberg nails the texture of the times.

But what’s interesting is that this hard-scrabble world has a warm, welcoming glow; bad things happen, but it never feels like a nasty book. Late in the novel, Mercer reports on a dream from his early months in New York: “He’d lie awake thinking about a city where people might actually be able to communicate their longings and disappointments and dreams, and so move beyond the illusion of being unknown and unknowable.” 

Of course, the world is not like this, and it’s the unknown and unknowable that give this book its story. But it’s the desire to move beyond those states that gives the book its tone, which is generous, hopeful and high-spirited. 

The book does contain one honest-to-goodness villain, the excellently named Amory Gould, who is a sinister schemer and a cruel, keen dissembler of other people’s vulnerabilities. But for the most part, the characters appear to like each other, and it’s for this reason, odd in social realism, that you like them, too.

Some books are gorgeous, polished, focused marvels that make the reader feel like every word has earned its place. City on Fire is not one of those books; instead, it’s an immersion, one where the author’s gone long so the reader can dive deep.  CR

Jonathan Cape, 944pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 14, 2015 as "Garth Risk Hallberg, City on Fire". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: CR