This is Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel, a rare first novel that started a publishing bidding war earlier this year, and in which the author took home a cool $2 million. And for months before its October release, a lot has been said about this 900 pages plus tome. Could it, would it, be the “it” book of the fall season, where folks would be pushing it onto others, saying in a hyperactive voice, “You’ve got to read this”?
While I find City on Fire to be a well written book, it falls short of being the epic it wants to be, and much like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, feels way too long, and while filled with a grand prose, it relies on way too many similes, and sometimes obvious plot turns, and mostly unappealing characters.
The story centers around a large cadre of folks: Regan and William Hamilton-Sweeney, estranged heirs to one of the city's biggest fortunes; Keith and Mercer, the men who, for better or worse, love them; Charlie and Sam, two Long Island teenagers seduced by downtown's nascent punk scene; an obsessive magazine reporter; his spunky, West Coast-transplant neighbor; and the detective trying to figure out what they all have to do with a shooting in Central Park. From post-Vietnam youth culture to the fiscal crisis, from a lushly appointed townhouse on Sutton Place to a derelict squat on East 3rd Street, this city on fire is at once recognizable and completely unexpected. And when the infamous blackout of July 13th, 1977 plunges it into darkness, each of these entangled lives will be changed, irrevocably.
Of course, the above description is only a small part of this book, as it would be very hard to try and cover all the aspects of this long book in any real review. But suffice it to say, we get a very detailed look into a very dysfunctional group of white folks, who despite all the money in the world, can not escape the pull of loneliness and entropy.
The one thing that occurred to me reading City on Fire is how much it could work better as TV show than a book. Its nonlinear structure, while always workable in novel format, is a bit offsetting here –its sometimes confusing the way time interacts here. I’ve read where Hallberg, a literary critic who covers a wide variety of subjects and genres, admits HBO’s The Wire influenced him in writing this book and I could see this novel would be more interesting as a serialized drama (note the book is split into seven sections, which are stories onto themselves). And like The Wire, which challenges the audience to not fully like any of its main characters. Which is great, it’s a format that I kind of enjoy, and something that television has been trying to do since the millennium.
Did I like it? Yes, but I also felt that it was overlong and a bit New York-centric for me –people who live there will enjoy it more, I sense. I would say, if this was adapted as a TV series, I think it could work. Despite the literary aspect of it, the basic plot is very pulpy in nature. Even so, though, I’m sure it would be critically praised, while suffering low ratings.
Such is the nature of today’s writers, especially those brought up what many consider a Golden Age of TV drama.