On Fire, and Fire, and Fire

Expectations can be hard. I’d heard very good things about Garth Risk Hallberg‘s debut novel, City on Fire. Set in New York City in the 1970s, it was billed as epic, Dickensian, a zeitgeist of the city in a perilous time. It has a fascinating beginning and Hallberg writes well. At at more than 900 pages, though expectations can only carry one so far. The last six-hundred pages of the book took time, patience, and a bit more stubbornness than anticipated.

The novel centers around the shooting of a young woman whose beauty and charm allow her to cross into multiple communities. Hallberg moves back and forward in time, giving each group of people affected (the man that found her; the punk group that was friends with her; the journalist writing about her; the detective investigating her shooting; the husband that was having an affair with her) time, more time, and more time still. Once I stopped just reading and began to mull over what I was reading and why, I began to picture a large wall of post-it cards, lines, and cross-references in Hallberg’s studio.

Don’t get me wrong. He writes well. The mood he establishes is tremendous. The book is plotted carefully and yes, if there’s a hook early someone hangs something on it later. And Hallberg works diligently to capture a city that was bordering on lawlessness, that at certain hours and in some neighborhoods, lacked a shared sense of community.

That wasn’t the whole city, of course. It’s the city that would do well in a Netflix or HBO drama, in a superhero or detective movie. I don’t begrudge Hallberg his environment; I just wish he had made it a bit more interesting. Along similar lines, he carefully crafted characters are more thoughtfully created than truly alive. At moments they break out – only to be yanked back into a large painting that is more interested in overall atmosphere than the folks who inhabit it. There’s an outstanding shorter novel trapped in this lengthy version.

City on Fire is a fine book, well-suited for a long relationship. If you’ve got good choices for something else, though, you may not want to invest the time.

David Potash