Review: Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire

Courtesy Knopf

Could a 944-page debut novel about New York's long-lost grit be this year's The Goldfinch?

New York in the 1970s—rank, ungovernable, graffiti tagged—was, for a long time, no one’s idea of a place and time worth revisiting. But the city’s latter-day incarnation as a tidied-up, prohibitively expensive Vancouver with rats has inspired a groundswell of considered retrospection. Think of two relatively recent National Book Award winners, Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, and Colum McCann’s novel Let the Great World Spin, both warmly immersive trudges through the auld scuzz.

Now comes Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire, an audaciously overstuffed novel, 944 pages in length, whose action takes place, give or take a few digressions into the past and future, in 1976 and ’77. City on Fire arrives with considerable hoopla, some of it tied to the nearly $2 million advance that Knopf paid for a debut novel by a writer still in his thirties (to which I say, more power to you, Garth), and some of it predicated upon the expectation that the book will be “this year’s The Goldfinch”—a comparison that, while glib, is not totally off base. Hallberg’s book shares with Donna Tartt’s 2013 blockbuster not only telephone-directory heft but also a long gestation period (Hallberg is said to have spent six years writing it), an overall air of melancholy, and an interest in the uptown-downtown duality of New York life.

If anything, City on Fire is, in scope, more 
ambitious than The Goldfinch. A panoramist 
in the Balzac tradition, Hallberg has fortified 
his novel with a vast roster of characters—among them, a young black schoolteacher, 
a troubled journalist, a
 scrappy NYPD detective,
 and a gang of East Village anarcho-punks. The fulcrums of the book, through
 which all the others’ lives 
intersect, are a brother and
 sister, William Hamilton-Sweeney and Regan Lamplighter, scions of a posh
 Upper East Side family 
whose prominence is threatened both by the upheavals
 of the times and by some
 sinister figures of Hallberg’s invention.

The aforementioned Patti Smith serves as something of a guiding spirit for City on Fire. William, a gay, sharp-cheekboned artist provocateur who has renounced his prepster background, bears a resemblance to Smith’s old partner in crime Robert Mapplethorpe, and Patti herself is frequently invoked by name. In a sweet and truthful touch, one trainee punk publicly proclaims his love for Smith’s groundbreaking 1975 album, Horses, while still secretly carrying a torch for—the shame!—Elton John’s Honky Château, from three years earlier. We are also treated to an issue of another character’s fanzine, reproduced in its slapdash DIY entirety, called Land of 1,000 Dances, in homage to the movement of that name from “Land,” Horses’ central song suite.

Hallberg has a lot of vérité tricks like this up his sleeve: a letter written by one of his characters in cursive; a manuscript pecked out by another on a typewriter; a plot spur apparently modeled on the Grucci family, New York’s foremost practitioners of fireworks shows, that offers an informative primer on pyrotechnics.

But ultimately, City on Fire lacks a component that was crucial to The Goldfinch’s success: joy. By this I mean the author’s joy in the act of storytelling, not some silly requirement that a novel’s characters be joyous, or that every novel must be fluffed up into an undemanding beach-towel hoot. The Goldfinch is the furthest thing from a feel-good book, but from that kaboom! scene in the Metropolitan Museum of Art onward, it envelops you in story and carries you along.

City on Fire, by contrast, feels self-conscious, its author never relinquishing his authorial presence and desire to impress. There’s a drab social-realist solemnity to Hallberg’s style, and his facility with words, formidable as it is, sometimes revs into maximal verbiage overdrive. In the space of two sentences, afternoon light is described as “eschatological,” and the frayed ends of a wine bottle’s wicker sleeve don’t merely vibrate when a truck rumbles by; they tremble “like the needles of some exquisite seismometer.”

Not that City on Fire is without its moments. Of the working-class white ethnics who forsook the city for Long Island, Hallberg writes with grace and acuity, “This was why they’d moved out from the crumbling boroughs: not for the freedom to do whatever they wanted behind closed doors…but to lose themselves in the great mass of America. Averageness was Long Island’s chief industrial product.” And as a pure feat of engineering, the book is a marvel. Hallberg plays with form, chronology, and perspective without ever losing his grip; this is as carefully whiteboarded as contemporary literary fiction gets.

But that’s also the rub of City on Fire—that the exercise of its construction seems to have trumped the pleasurableness of the end product. It so happens that Patti Smith is touring Horses this year on the occasion of its 40th anniversary. And while its songs are harrowing in subject matter, dating from the very time and milieus that Hallberg delves into, Smith, fiery as ever, performs them exultantly, euphorically, fists pumping—proof that, in art, darkness and joy needn’t be mutually exclusive. $30; penguinrandomhouse.com.