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City on Fire
By Garth Risk Hallberg
Reviewed by Nora Rawn
Any literary debut preceded by a notable seven figure advance and clocking in at over 900 pages bears a heavy weight of expectation. Like many before him, Garth Risk Hallberg does not prove equal to the burden. The writing can be overly precious, while the characters sink under the demands of the plot upon them. Several different strands of New York society intersect across the novel, from a wealthy clan to a crew of Alphabet City punks, a retired detective, a fireworks expert, and two Long Island teens looking to join the counter-culture; all of them come together in the novel's conclusion, set during the great Blackout of 1977, but the path they take to get there is too carefully controlled to be invigorating. Partly this is a family drama centering on prodigal son William Hamilton-Sweeney and his sister Regan, but it also attempts to draw a picture of the punk scene, an effort that can be at cross-purposes. Both aspects are reflected in reproductions of documents within the text which range from punk zines to personal letters from the Hamilton-Sweeney patriarch. Meant to provide an immersive experience, instead the facsimiles are more of a distraction than anything else.
William is the main thread tying the novel's strands together as both the estranged scion of the society family and an enigmatic punk frontman, but a young woman named Sam features as well, being both an obsessive fan of William's former band and the lover of Regan's husband. One link to connect a storyline is never enough in this dense tome, which features layer on layer of interlocking connections to the point that the city of New York might as well be a small town instead of a sprawling metropolis. This tendency has been called Dickensian, but Hallberg lacks the humor so prevalent in Dickens, nor do his characters share the detailed particularities of a Mrs. Jellyby or a Miss Havisham. Hallberg chooses instead, having so many characters, to reduce many of them to one-dimensional stereotypes. In this regard he does have some common ground with Tom Wolfe, whose Bonfire of the Vanities covers similar ground, but it is to be regretted that, despite featuring a young gay black man as William's lover Mercer, Hallberg never delves into the racial politics of 70s New York. His interest in the down-and-out aspects of city life are confined mostly to the slumming young teens who flock to the music of artists like William.
These contradictory yet intermingled worlds are meant to provide the 'New York'ness of the novel, reflections of the city's multiplicity, but in the main they manage to present only an idea of that pulsing vibrancy without capturing its essence. This ambitious first book handles its occasionally creaking plot serviceably enough, but fails to make that magic transition that breathes life into the characters involved.
Out of 10: 7.9