Garth Risk Hallberg | City on Fire (Vintage)

A good book makes you care so deeply about the characters that you want, somehow, to be able to give them the good they deserve.


I’m not sure which is more of an undertaking: Writing a 900-plus-page book or committing to review one.

Just kidding: Writing the beast is. Honestly, I can’t even imagine envisioning anything that long and detailed, never mind taking the time to actually set fingers to keyboard and write the whole thing out. (And would you believe this is the author’s first novel?)

I mean no disrespect by the word “beast,” as City on Fire is a sprawling, epic, contemporary classic. Sure, it’s long, and sure, it will take you a bit of time to get through—but Don DeLillo’s Underworld and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest were long, too, and aren’t you glad you read them?

The events in City on Fire take place in the grimy New York City of the 1970s. Across various sections, Hallberg skips around in time, yet he always gives us the range of dates so we’re keeping time right alongside him. You won’t like everyone in City on Fire—but isn’t that the way it is with life? Just because someone’s not our cup of tea doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take the time to get to know them; we can learn something from everyone, after all.

The cast of characters in this book is far too great to mention in a review, but don’t worry: After a few visits with each one, you’ll be able to keep them all straight. There’s teenage Charlie and his best friend Sam(antha), married/ex-married couple Regan and Keith, boyfriends/ex-boyfriends Marcus and William, a journalist, and a host of others, all peripherally or directly related somehow.

Early in the book there’s a New Year’s Eve shooting in Central Park, the repercussions of which seep into all of the characters with whom we spend time. You’ll find yourself rooting for some of them, damning some, and wanting so, so terribly to change the trajectory of some. (And isn’t that the mark of a good book: It makes you care so deeply about the characters that you want, somehow, to be able to give them the good they deserve?)

In between sections are interludes, which take many forms: a letter, a journal, a ’zine, a newspaper account. The use of these is so out of the ordinary, you’ll admire the author all the more because of his uniqueness and vision.

Hallberg’s writing is insightful, creative, and, at times, poetically brilliant.

  • Of observing the world surrounding a lover: “He watched the sun come out from behind a cloud, and the branches of the elms thrown up like dancers’ arms, and the green garments they held to the wind. Incidental, all of it, of course, but this was what this city bestowed that novels couldn’t: not what you needed in order to live, but what made the living worth doing in the first place.”
  • Of the journalist reading the young girl’s ’zine: “The greatest part, though, was just the intimacy of the thing. Reading it was like subletting a small apartment in someone else’s head, right down to the cryptic signifiers she assigned to her friends.”
  • Of the effect age has on personal recovery: “When you were young, you had the resources to rebuild after each crater fate blasted in your life. Beyond a certain age, though, you could only wall off the damage and leave it there.”

Toward the end of the book, Hallberg asks, “But how was it possible for a book to be as big as life?” In City on Fire, he answers his own question. Sure, it’s long, but don’t let that scare you. Instead, revel in the fact that you’ll have more time to spend with these characters. They’ll become friends, neighbors, annoyances as they create and ruin, succeed and fail, learn and lose. Trust me: You’ll be a better person for taking the time to embrace the stunning new literary voice that is Garth Risk Hallberg. | Laura Hamlett

About Laura Hamlett 438 Articles
Laura Hamlett is the Managing Editor of PLAYBACK:stl. In a past life, she was also a music publicist and band manager. Besides music, books, and other forms of popular culture, she's a fan of the psychology behind true crime and violent criminals. Ask her about mass murder...if you dare.

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