City On Fire

Dec 23, 2015

When an author—even an established, best-selling author—receives an advance of $2,000,000, there’s invariably a ton of buzz, and, naturally, the expectation of transcendent brilliance. Such was the case with Garth Risk Hallberg’s City On Fire (, a 900+ page (1000+ on a Nook) first novel epic set in New York City beginning in 1976 and climaxing during the great citywide blackout in July of 1977. Any book-lover couldn’t miss the hype this past fall: New York Magazine, The New Yorker, NY Times Book Review, etc., etc., even The Economist! Still, we’re talking about a hefty load of sentences, big time commitment, the level of commitment that one could direct to Infinite Jest instead.

That being said, I couldn’t resist.

I am, after all, a New Yorker, raised on the Upper East Side, and although I was away at college in Boston during the days of City On Fire, I returned home often enough to experience the general sense of the city’s decline, and fear (thank you Son of Sam), along with fleeting, yet no less disturbing, views of burned out storefronts in Harlem post blackout. The city felt abandoned then, not just by Washington, or Albany, but by its own inhabitants, who too easily blamed anyone but themselves for ignoring the decline. It was a complicated time and although the country as a whole suffered from President Carter’s famously described “malaise,” New York City seemed a particularly self-inflicted basket case, one that didn’t necessarily suggest comparison nor provide lessons for the rest of the USA. All of which makes the era, and ’76 through ’77 specifically, a daunting playground for any author, let alone an author who hadn’t been born yet!

But City On Fire works, and well, and for at least other New Yorkers, the novel is a thrilling look back at a time many would just soon forget.

The book features an extensive number of principal characters: Mercer, Billy, Regan, Samantha, Charlie, Richard, Avery, Pulaski, and on and on, which encompass a wide swath of the late 70s NYC socio-economic scene, from the old-money Wall Street elite down to the grungy punk rock denizens of abandoned buildings. But I never felt lost as Hallberg established his latticework of characters and amped up the danger and suspense from their explosive interactions. Many of the characters were sympathetic, almost endearing, their wounds well formed and complex; and, of course, there is no shortage of the villainous and morally depraved. They all move forward toward a resolution that is exciting and hopeful, yet also sad. Yes, this is a long book, but it never dragged, and unlike some other recent doorstops, I can’t really imagine where it could’ve been shortened.

All in all I’m grateful for City On Fire. It’s one helluva accomplishment, although one best read on an iPad, Kindle or Nook (unless you want to exercise your biceps while reading). The novel fits nicely into the canon of great New York City literature, and while it may not overshadow the best of Richard Price (for instance Lush Life,, or Bonfire of the Vanities, it is nonetheless an exceptionally entertaining read. I can’t say City On Fire offers deep insight to the American or human experience outside New York City, but, hey, all the rest of yous can just fugetaboutit.


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