A long book represents an act of faith. On the writer’s part, to be sure: The faith that he or she has something to say that’s worth all the hours it will take for us to hear it, that it won’t dissolve in ephemera and flash. But on the reader’s part, also: The faith that we can trust the writer, that there will be a payoff, that it will add up.
Certainly, this is the challenge faced by Garth Risk Hallberg’s first novel “City on Fire,” which, clocking in at more than 900 pages, seeks to re-create, in panoramic fashion, the New York City of the late 1970s. Hallberg’s book, of course, is much anticipated, for its length, its scope and its deal (he sold the book for $2 million) — but all of that is beside the point. The only criteria worth considering is whether, or how, the narrative works, the extent to which it draws us in.
Don DeLillo’s “Underworld,” for instance — to which “City on Fire” bears a superficial resemblance — was a long book, but it resonated with an unexpected intimacy. That’s because DeLillo framed his novel around a small group of characters, but Hallberg chooses the opposite approach, introducing dozens of people, moving back and forth between story lines.
“City on Fire” begins on New Year’s Eve 1976 and culminates with the blackout of July 13 and 14, 1977; it aspires to create a pastiche of the city as it was and as it is. Hallberg makes the idea explicit by playing with chronology, filling in backstory going back to the late 1950s, although focusing largely on the years just before the main action begins.
At the center of the book are two siblings, William and Regan Hamilton-Sweeney, whose father is one of New York’s most prominent financiers. William is a junkie art boy, otherwise known as Billy Three-Sticks, painter and frontman of the punk band Ex Post Facto, which cut its album on a whim. “They’d made up the track listing for the first LP before writing a single song,” Hallberg tells us. "… Most of it had been recorded in one take.” His sister Regan is a mother, closet bulimic, on the board of the family business, extricating herself from a marriage that has collapsed.
Also in the mix are Charlie, a runaway from Long Island, and the NYU freshman he loves, Samantha, who is shot in Central Park at the beginning of the book and left in a vegetative state. Then there is William’s lover, Mercer, who teaches at a Manhattan private school, the journalist Richard Groskoph, and an anarchist named Nicky Chaos, who transforms the scene around Ex Post Facto into a collective called the Post-Humanists.
Hallberg has done his homework; the Post-Humanists recall Missing Foundation, the Lower East Side band whose gigs often became mini-riots; their motto was “The party’s over,” signified by an upside-down martini glass. In that sense, it is not just the 1970s but also the post-punk 1980s New York that the book evokes, a city of insurrection and incursion, the last gasp before capitalism squared the circle and turned Manhattan (and later Brooklyn) into an urban amusement park. There are also a few jarring pull-outs that hint at the effect of 9/11 on the city’s psyche.
For Hallberg, the implication seems to be that the blackout, with its looting and its chaos, was a harbinger of that more identifiable apocalypse. I don’t buy it, though. The blackout was, if anything, an emblem of its time. The South Bronx, Son of Sam, the fiscal crisis: New York in the 1970s was a metropolis in freefall. In such a context, the blackout becomes less metaphorical than inevitable, as in: How else would the citizens of a disrupted city react?
“My uncle hadn’t wanted to white out the city,” Billy Three-Sticks’ nephew informs us from a later point in history, describing a series of site-specific installations, altering street signs and landmarks, that the artist has left behind; “he’d wanted to reimagine it. To exchange the inside of his head with what was beyond.... Who could be certain, this far from the altered skyline, that he hadn’t tucked skyscrapers of cardboard in among the ones made of steel? Who knew what city I was even in?”
That’s a beautiful passage, one of my favorite in the novel, and it suggests, I think, something of Hallberg’s aspirations, the belief (or hope) that art can transform us, that it should not only be interior but might also take on the movements of the world. And yet we need both, I think, in the landscape of the novel, the wide and the narrow view.
Hallberg achieves that with his most fully realized characters: The Hamilton-Sweeneys, lost in the bubble of their privilege, Charlie longing for an identity he can call his own. There is too much, however, that feels not fully rendered, peripheral. Especially when it comes to the anarchists, who are in league with certain business interests — a telling gloss on anarchism, the late 20th century variety at least — “City on Fire” begins to reveal its schematics, begins to show its bones.
It’s easy to say the book is too long (and it is, by a few hundred pages) but that is not the issue; rather, it is a matter, again, of intimacy or faith. “I learned this recently,” Billy Three-Sticks explains at one point, “and it struck me as insanely beautiful: The word for hello or goodbye in Zulu literally means ‘I see you.’ And the answer is ‘I am here.’ You understand?”
He’s right, that is insanely beautiful, and a marker for what the novel needs to do. There is a lot of terrific writing in “City on Fire,” a lot of vivid action, of ideas. But in the end, it doesn’t, can’t, quite support our faith or its author’s intention, can’t quite carry the weight of all its words.
City on Fire
Garth Risk Hallberg
Alfred A. Knopf: 912 pp., $30