Though Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of one experimental novella, “Field Guide to the North American Family,” he has written a great American novel on his first attempt. His undertaking is huge, his delivery is excellent, but the question of Hallberg’s first novel was controversial before anyone opened a cover.
Hallberg, 36 years old and raised in the Carolinas by a father who is also a novelist, was given a seven-figure advance for City on Fire. The literary debate started almost immediately: Will it raise the value of first novels for other writers? Will a non-literary audience pick it up? And if it doesn’t recoup sales, won’t the industry as a whole be plagued? And, maybe the question that was hinted at beneath it all, why didn’t MY first novel get that kind of dough?
It also happens to be set in the literary mecca of the world, New York, and once a “city” novel takes on the landscape of Manhattan, every reviewer under sleek magazine covers is going to assess the accuracy, the smell, the milieu of their town. In fact, a fair share of reviewers spend more time detailing the black outs, the economic rise and fall, the gentrification, the AIDS epidemic of their own memory, as if Hallberg’s historical fiction has given them an excuse to fall back into their own histrionics.
Hallberg’s novel is a commingling of F. Scott Fitzgerald, J. D. Salinger and Tom Wolfe. The inner depth of Hallberg’s characters speaks to Salinger’s most famous character, Holden Caulfield. There is even some salt and pepper from McInerney and Pynchon. With a novel formatted in an array of different mediums—‘zine journals, diaries, illustrations—and being so weighty, it also runs into collusion with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Donna Tartt’s blockbuster The Goldfinch or any of Jonathan Franzen’s monster tomes. ?
Still, City on Fire doesn’t reach the pedigree of Infinite Jest. It doesn’t possess the lyricism of The Goldfinch, but it is far less repetitive. It is better than Purity, but not as good as The Corrections. There is little connection to Wolfe’s style in The Bonfire of the Vanities. And other than a seemingly authentic voice in its characters, City on Fire does not include Holden. There is no East or West Egg. Garth Hallberg’s novel is his own, and his publisher made a good investment. It is a good book.
City on Fire is set in 1970s Manhattan. The era is memorialized as gritty with graffiti and an urban banality that finds charm in the voice of the neighborhood. Punk was being born at the Bowery and the Bronx was in flames. Young artists could create in majestically broken-down, rent-protected brick and mortar buildings. The youth were alive with records, writers with typewriters and cellphones were non-existent. Hallberg’s story is exceptional in that it retains life but is not so sacrosanct that is doesn’t make beauty in error. All of this comes to life in City of Fire.
Hallberg’s characters cross the divide of class, age, sexuality and race. The story centers on the shooting of Samantha Cicciaro, a 17-year-old Bohemian artist from suburbia Long Island who has bought into the idea of reinvention in the big city. Samantha and her friend Charlie Weisbarger have been hanging with punk rockers run by the nihilist Nicky Chaos. Chaos famously says, “No more art. No more trying to change the culture with culture.” He’s a bad revolutionary who predicts that change in the city will require an awful bottom.
Samantha has been sleeping with trader Keith Lamplighter, who is the husband, albeit estranged, of heir Regan Hamilton-Sweeney. Her family is a ruthless patriarch among rich New Yorkers. They have a Midtown office tower bearing the proud family name. Regan is perhaps less interesting than her slick, easy husband who makes bad bets in business and life: he’s all Brooks Brothers and no brains.
Regan is sister, albeit estranged, to City on Fire’s most engaging character: William Stuart Althorp Hamilton-Sweeney III who, aside from working as a musician and painter, is also emotionally stunted.
William is a boarding school dropout who became known as Billy Three-Sticks, the leader for the punk band Ex Post Facto. Early in the punk reign, they produced one of the great punk records. At 33, however, he is a junkie in a classic co-dependent relationship with his 24-year-old male lover Mercer.
Mercer is an African American refugee from the Georgia area and an aspiring novelist who teaches sophomore English to female prep school students. Mercer has many inner narratives, not dissimilar to Jimmy in the film The Commitments where he pretends to be interviewed by the Paris Review and makes heavy note of his generational patterns. A “play-within-a-play” or meta-fiction at heart: Mercer the writer and his abusive, heir apparent, punk-rocker-turned-junkie-turned-obsessive-painter.
William’s art has become an attempt “to recreate the face of the entire city” on canvas. Again, Hallberg gets a bit meta: “She couldn’t tell if it was good, exactly but no one could say it wasn’t ambitious.” Is this an inside look at Hallberg’s own massive novel? An inside joke?
There is a detective involved. He has one more case before retirement. There is William’s mentor. There are a half dozen or more characters, and their opportunity to grow is part of the beauty of this novel. It is highly character driven, with looping plot lines that continue over and over, almost Blue Velvet-esque in the way the plot circles with one eccentric character after another. In this regard, City on Fire is a whodunnit detective story: Instead of a David Lynch ear, however, an apparently random shooting on New Year’s Eve turns out to be the interconnectivity between the seemingly tangentially connected characters.
There are backstories. There are flash-forwards. There are interludes in different mediums in the book. The novel has 94 chapters with a prologue and a postscript. Relationships are nuanced and family trees are brought to light. But overall, it maintains that detective story. Hallberg shows off his writing chops in different styles. There is one point-of-view at a time, per chapter, like Kent Haruf’s Plainsong or Bill Clegg’s new Did You Ever Have a Family. Hallberg’s writing inside the mind of his character on heroin is delicious, and while the story is divided in parts, the atmosphere is always spot on.??
The climax of the novel is set during the blackout on July 13, 1977. The scene is 120 pages of anger, folly and mayhem. Under this shade of disaster, the shooting of Samantha Cicciaro has been solved. The whodunnit is revealed, and this loosely assembled montage of characters begins to go their own way. The era is spun in Hallburg’s massive novel, and it is put to bed.
When it is over, it is not about how little has been decided (although the conclusion is clear), but how much has been experienced. Here is a novel in which the plot is the rhythm section, not the melody, and it stays free of labored explanations and a forced climax. Hallberg’s City on Fire is resolute and powerful.