In 2013, the announcement that Garth Risk Hallberg, a debut novelist, was to receive an advance of nearly two million dollars, set the literary world atwitter. A New York Times article stated that the book drew a two-day bidding war, prompting ten publishers to offer more than a million dollars. Knopf, the eventual winner, pursued the book because of its ambition and its ability to be both “intellectual and emotionally generous.” The novel is large, at over 900 pages, and weighs nearly three pounds. Its pages contain the stories of multiple protagonists as well as a number of creative epistolary interludes.
The cast of this novel is remarkably similar to that of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, published in 2010, which also centered around the emerging punk scene in greater New York. Familiar, too, is the large cast of characters, though unlike Egan, who jumps from one person to the next through linked short stories, Hallberg cycles back to the same characters, allowing their stories to continue. He’s aided in this endeavor, of course, by an additional 500 pages of story. Though the page count is somewhat intimidating, the prose style is easy to follow, with the focus on storytelling rather than lyrically-crafted sentences.
The book opens with Mercer Goodman, a gay black man from Altana, Georgia (yes, Altana), who has traveled north to escape his family and provincial life. Employed at the Wenceslas-Mockingbird School for Girls, Mercer falls for local punk rock icon and painter Billy Three-Sticks, known better to him as William. Even in 1970’s New York, Mercer knows their incongruity makes them suspicious. “You knew it just to look at them,” writes Hallberg, “the doughy brown bourgeois, the wiry pale punk: What could possibly have yoked these two together, besides the occult power of sex?”
Billy Three-Sticks is the former front man of Ex Post Facto, an early punk band with a name chosen via Ouija board. Though the band’s sole album, City on Fire, shares a title with the novel itself, the name of the book is drawn more directly from a series of fires raging through the South Bronx. These fires become so widespread that the city designates the area as a “Blight Zone,” which sets the stage for a frenzied tug of war between the proponents of populist revolution and those advocating for corporate-led renewal. At the heart of this struggle is the apparently tone-deaf and musically ignorant Nicky Chaos, whose attempts to take control of Ex Post Facto are thwarted, leading him to establish his own group, which eventually morphs into the anarchist movement called Post-Humanism.
Drawn into this world is Charlie Weisbarger, a seventeen-year-old feeling displaced after his adoptive mother gives birth to twins. Shortly afterward, a familial loss sends Charlie into a tailspin, leaving him all the more alienated from his Jewish upbringing and pushing him to seek solace in a new faith. It is in the midst of this crisis that he meets and immediately falls for Samantha Cicciaro, an aspiring photographer and fanzine writer who happens to be the daughter of New York’s preeminent firework innovator. Samantha, or Sam, introduces Charlie to punk, dislodging Bowie as the sole God on his musical Olympus and introducing him to the likes of Patti Smith and Ex Post Facto. Charlie’s habit of lugging his bible around the atheistic punk scene earns him the ironic moniker of “The Prophet Charlie,” which comes to be said more with reverence than spite as he earns his place in the Phalanstery, Post-Humanism’s headquarters.
Living in an entirely different New York is Regan Hamilton-Sweeney, of “those” Hamilton-Sweeneys, who manages public relations for her father’s company. Though she has two children and a husband whose foibles take the lion’s share of her attention, Regan is desperately trying to reconnect with her estranged brother, who disappeared years earlier on the eve of their father’s second marriage. Further complicating her life, Regan’s father becomes ensnared in a legal battle that threatens to tip control of the company to her step-uncle, Amory Gould, known better as The Demon Brother. Amory, risen from a dilapidated home in Buffalo to tremendous heights, emerges as the most fully-realized villain, disturbing in his proficiency, alarming in his ability to read people.
Six interludes, followed by a postscript, give fuller access to the protagonists, but also to the wider cast as well. They include a handwritten letter, drafts of an article, a fanzine, a psychological evaluation form, and a notebook. Several interludes are more successful than others. The letter, written by William Hamilton-Sweeney II to his long absent son, is something of an irritant, as stilted writing is made all the more pronounced by fifteen successive pages of cursive. Still, the letter has its moments, as the father writes, “That your father is a man, son, as you are. This is the impossibility I ask you to imagine.” The psychological form serves as a postscript long before the actual postscript, jumping forward a generation and introducing a new voice. Both the fanzine and the articles offer valuable insight into the minds of their (fictional) authors as well.
There is a particular moment when, some 700 pages in, a number of loosely connected protagonists find themselves gathered in police Inspector Larry Pulaski’s office, attempting to uncover the details of a terror plot they hardly understand themselves. It is a scene fit for the conclusion of an Agatha Christie novel, but without the aid of Hercule Poirot’s little grey cells the group ultimately disbands with few answers, wandering off into a night that will be the darkest in New York’s recent history.
Of the twenty individual perspectives the novel offers, Mercer, Charlie, and Regan are given the most pages, with William and Keith Lamplighter, Regan’s husband, close behind. Other protagonists are Richard Groskoph, a journalist, and Jenny Nguyen, an assistant at a fine art gallery. Additionally, a host of other viewpoints emerge as a series of vignettes center around a citywide blackout. These mini-scenes are separated by a quick declaration of location and time, and introduce the reader to a nurse, a father, a mother, an anarchist, a motorcycle gang, and a radio host, among others. The vignettes successfully breathe life into a collective experience that touches an entire city. Playing loosely with time, the frantic pace of these scenes propels the book toward its conclusion.
In this novel, life presses on even as death claims those loved most dearly. A shooting in Central Park, presented early in the novel and assumed to be its central mystery, is no more relevant to the story than family dynamics, love, friendship, radical politics. While the responsible party is ultimately revealed, it does little to alter the course of the novel, to divert this large cast from its path. Hallberg’s novel is ambitious and inventive, breathing life into a host of memorable characters. Its length will certainly be daunting to some readers, but for those willing to take the time, City on Fire is a strong debut from a writer whose name will surely come to be known more for his talent than for the heft of his books or the size of his advance.