Book Review – City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

Book Review – City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

944 pages. Really large. Large in ambition and character and plot and language and emotional scope. So large, that a reader’s review of polite length is a daunting prospect – there are just so many moving parts. But given the astonishing final 200 pages (and notwithstanding some of its earlier indulgences), it is worthy of a try.

The book is set in New York between Christmas 1976 and July 1977, and bookended by a shooting in Central Park and the great power blackout that crippled the city seven months later. These two event draw together an astonishing palette of characters – a group of disaffected anarchist/punks, a master fireworks designer, a neglected and love-lorn teenage boy, a fantastically wealthy and dysfunctional uptown family, a petite and pretty dreamseeking big city newbie, a physically handicapped detective, a depressed reporter, a fictional iconic and short-lived punk band, a gay black aspirant novelist and his heroin addicted white artist boyfriend. All of these lives (and many more) are strung together in a unruly tapestry, intersecting in unpredictable ways as the period between the shooting and the power blackout construct a stage in which they careen and bounce off each other, by co-incidence and design. It is a wildly complex and multi-layered plot, sometimes ingenious, sometimes disingenuous, sometime gripping, sometimes stalled in underlying character soul-searching and tangential asides. 

This period was a terrible time for New York – it was bankrupt, crime was out of control, buildings were being set alight all over the poor boroughs of the city, the heat of that 1977 summer was wilting – it seemed the end of things in that great city (I remember this well, having just moved to the US). Against this backdrop, Hallberg has constructed a bursting amalgam of literary fiction, detective thriller, love story, historical narrative, psychological study and philosophical treatise on all manner of things, all beautifully rendered in soaring language.

The first part of the book sets up the wide cast of diverse characters, drills their backgrounds deep, with flashbacks and flash-forwards and assorting musings, before the shooting in Central Park happens on a cold New Year’s eve. And then a slowly converging plot that congeals finally into a hurtling, rock hard, sharped edge, page gripping climax over the final 200 pages, with the threat of a terrible tragedy revealing itself and coming hotly into focus (and language suddenly and cleverly shifted from past to present tense).

And what of its length? I think that there is a reason most novels are 350 pages or thereabouts. It is the sweet spot for the medium. A story can be moulded neatly into this package, requiring, what, 10 – 20 hours of the reader’s time? It is a digestible attention span. But 944 pages (which took me 6 weeks to finish)is, quite simply, too long for most tastes, too long for energy to sustain, for the colours of narrative and plot and character to retain the vibrance of the moment. Yes, there are exceptions (Dickens comes to mind, The Goldfinch, &Sons, Infinite Jest). But they are exceptions. Is this? Yes, in many ways it is a great book, painstakingly constructed and tended, but a judicious and merciless edit of 400 or 500 pages would have rendered this a masterpiece. Still, I can’t deny that I felt a sense of a achievement when I finished.

Hallberg was paid $2 mil for this debut novel – a breathtaking advance, a record. Apparently he compared his book to a box DVD set of House of Cards or Sopranos or Breaking Bad – scores of episodes consumed in a single binge watch. He wanted to recreate that experience in reading.

He didn’t quite get there. But it was close enough.