Where There’s Smoke…

City on Fire

FA review tag

It’s around page 850 of Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire when the action really gets going.

Plenty happens in the preceding pages, sure, but it is only toward the very end that the various narrative threads finally begin to twist and knot: It’s past 2:00 a.m. on the night of the New York City blackout of 1977. Detective Larry Pulaski, one of at least nine major characters who have carried the story so far, has followed a handful of dead-end leads surrounding a New Year’s Eve shooting to this moment — a desperate race to prevent something (no spoilers) that is part of “a scenario so screwy it wouldn’t pass muster at a movie house.” 

Through all the uncertainty, urgency and physical strain, Detective Pulaski’s chief concern is his wife Sherri, and how he has failed in their marriage:

This overworked muscle, his mind or heart, feels freer than it has in years. And of this, at least, the Sherri who used to know him might approve. He reaches out now through the solid walls of the stairshaft and over the eight million stories and the harbor and the landfills to where she’d be by now, a pair of headlights zooming south on the Jersey Turnpike. Come back, he thinks. I’ll be better.

This small passage, and the fact that it comes at a point where, in most books, inward reflection of any substantial depth has been overtaken by events, are my best arguments for why you should read City on Fire. If you know this book, you’ve likely heard about it because of the hype (more on that soon.) So rather than just telling you it’s great, I’m offering this microcosm of the novel as a whole, which derives its strength not solely from a hustling-along plot or from the slow and deliberate care it takes with its many characters, but from Hallberg’s ability to manage both. In case I need to make it plainer: City on Fire is one of the best pieces of fiction I have read in years.

About that hype: Hallberg is the most recent Heavily Hyped Literary Phenom, the latest young, white male since David Foster Wallace or Jonathan Franzen or Joshua Ferris or Chad Harbach or Joshua Cohen to show up and suck all the oxygen from the literary room while other equally deserving writers go unappreciated.

And Hallberg is an HHLP for the ages: He netted a staggering $2 million advance for this debut novel. It’s an ambitious, 900+ page doorstop that includes narrative-breaking “interludes” and illustrated sections. It has been called “highly anticipated,” “most hotly anticipated,” and “much anticipated” by the Chicago Tribune, Entertainment Weekly and Vulture, respectively, and VOGUE magazine, for what it’s worth, called it the “Most Anticipated Novel of the Year.”

Hallberg even goes by three-names, the middle of which is “Risk” for chrissake.


Hallberg in VOGUE, silently and fashionably pleading with you to close VOGUE and open City on Fire.

Who among us wouldn’t enjoy seeing him miss the mark? Which of us is enough of a sucker to believe in such promise? Not even in this age of supposed New Sincerity are we so guileless.

Up against all that, I can’t promise that City on Fire is going to change your life. But if you close out all the chatter, the book is undeniably good and worth the time it takes. The prose flows quickly and runs deep. Across the broad ensemble of characters, Hallberg gives each individual due attention and care. Any given chapter, each of which cycles through the perspectives of a different member of the group, could stand alone as a powerful short story. If nothing else, go and read the chapter where Mercer Goodman returns from living with his junkie punk rocker boyfriend in a West Village loft to stay in his parents’ home in rural Georgia. Finally – and of especial importance to me personally – Hallberg writes with a tenderness about New York in the late 1970s, without any bullshit romanticizing of a period of deep social distress and turbulence.

There are few slip ups. Strange coincidences here and there. A true cynic might describe it as “An ensemble piece like Love Actually, except instead of Christmas in Britain it’s the collapse of civilization in 1970s New York City” but actually mean it.

The bottom line is that I haven’t enjoyed reading a novel this much in a long time. As I add to the hype, let me encourage you to forget all about it and just read.


Michael Moats

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