Book review: “City on Fire,” by Garth Risk Hallberg
July 13, 1977, 8:37 p.m.: New York City goes dark. At a time when the city was facing a
severe economic downturn and a brutal heat wave, the blackout seemed to be the breaking point for many of its residents. Looting and vandalism were widespread. Millions of dollars of damage was reported, and the largest mass arrest in the history of the city was conducted.
Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut City On Fire isn’t about the blackout; in fact, this event doesn’t occur until Chapter 90 (yes, you read that right). But considering this work without the blackout would be like reviewing “Moby Dick” without the whale: its tangible presence is felt throughout the 900 pages of this work, its pressure building, hovering over each character until its apotheosis in the final pages.
A novel such as this is difficult to review. What you have are nearly a dozen main characters: estranged heirs, a struggling alcoholic journalist, an anarchist collective, teens entrenched in the punk scene, an aging detective, all of whom are connected to a shooting that occurs in Central Park.
The careful entanglement of these individuals is a remarkable feat Hallberg masterfully executes without seeming overwrought or too deliberate with his intentions, traps even seasoned novelists fall into now and then.
The fact that this is a debut novel is incredible, and must have been to the publishers as well: Knopf offered Hallberg a two million dollar publishing deal for his manuscript, an entirely unheard-of sum in the industry.
Hype can be a funny thing though, and one can foresee a book like this being divisive once it hits the shelves Tuesday. Perhaps comparable to Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch,” it might not be for everyone … and yet, it is a book that everyone should read.
A work of pure ambition, Hallberg’s attempt to capture the weight and breadth and
confusion of a life (or in this case, many lives) was successful. It is a hectic novel, kaleidoscopic at times and often a little messy, but so is life.
Considering the work through this lens, anything fewer than 900 pages would have been an insult to what Hallberg was attempting to do here. Anyone who spoke to me over the two months I spent with this book probably had to suffer through my various alternating frustrations and praises. The novel is frustrating, it is praiseworthy, but most importantly, it is a work that is entirely immersive.
So take a week away from all of your obligations and do nothing but read this novel. It’s worth it. Then come into Off The Beaten Path so we can talk about it.
Logan Farmer is a bookseller at Off the Beaten Path
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