Review: City on Fire

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Once in a while, a novel comes along, reaches somewhere deep inside you, and touches some kind of metaphysical ground wire, lighting the whole thing up. Once in a while, a novel comes along and hits you right in the gut.

Once in a while, a novel comes along and says exactly the things you’ve been longing, without even knowing it, to hear. Once in a while, a novel comes along and really examines the universal human darkness that all of us know.

City On Fire is such a novel.

Weighing in at 944 pages, Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut is vast and undeniably ambitious. But while some books are long for the sake of length, City On Fire may be the opposite – a book that contains a dizzying number of overlapping stories and an infinite number of possibilities in what seems to be an impossibly small space. It’s the pressure built up behind a champagne cork. It’s the feedback howling against a tube amplifier. It’s a universe expanding forever outward.

It’s a bomb, and it’s about to go off. It’s a light, and it’s about to go out.

On New Year’s Eve, 1976, millions of people converge on Manhattan. A few of them, from disparate walks of life, are about to collide. Regan Hamilton-Sweeney, the reluctant heir to one of New York’s most powerful families, attends her stepmother’s annual soiree. Her brother, William, whom she has not seen in decades, heads downtown to see the reunion of the punk band in which he once played guitar. Her estranged husband, Keith, trudges through the snow, debating whether to keep a date with his former mistress. Charlie Weisbarger, seventeen and grounded for the last six months on Long Island, heads to into the city to meet Sam, the girl he’s loved from afar since last summer, and to see their favorite band reunite for one final show. Mercer Goodman, in love with William but frustrated by his secrecy, sneaks into the Hamilton-Sweeney party.

Before the clock strikes midnight, a gun has gone off, someone lies bleeding in Central Park, and a force far greater than the sum of its parts has begun to gather momentum. Over the next six months, these characters and others – a disgruntled reporter, his idealistic neighbor, destitute punks drawn toward an enigmatic leader, and a retiring detective trying to finish one last case – will fly in and out of each other’s orbit, until the moment in mid-July 1977 when the city, itself a living, breathing entity, goes suddenly dark.

New York, in 1977, is a proverbial melting pot reaching a very real boiling point. Economic woes are plaguing the City. Neighborhoods inhabited by poor minorities are being destroyed by arson. Violent crime has been on the rise, and fear is palpable. A summer heat wave has everyone restless and on edge. The righteous idealism of the ‘60s has been replaced by a nihilistic rage.

And on the evening of July 13, when ConEdison’s biggest generator fails and a devastating blackout begins, the darkness that has been encroaching on the city for months becomes literal and uncompromising.

People do awful things, and cowardly things, in the face of darkness. When the darkness comes, people so often react selfishly. In darkness, our worst instincts sometimes guide us.

But sometimes, in darkness, they do not.

“There is no one, unitary city,” Hallberg writes in the novel’s opening pages, “or, if there is, it’s the sum of thousands of variations, all jockeying for the same spot.” Indeed, there are so many different New Yorks packed into City On Fire that it’s hard to imagine how an island the size of Manhattan could possibly contain them all. The big, mythical New York – the one that has inhabited the hopes and dreams and wild fantasies of generations of people – is here. But so is the grimy, charred, slightly paranoid New York familiar to so many of the city’s inhabitants.

When the darkness flings all of Hallberg’s characters – and all of these infinite cities — together, some people react predictably, taking advantage of the chaos that has been building around them. But others band together – bravely, bizarrely, and sometimes quixotically – to face that darkness head on.

City On Fire is a big, loud, combustible novel about love and art and addiction, punk rock and murder and anarchy and fireworks. But at its smoldering core, it’s a novel about people banding together against the darkness, without any guarantee that the lights will come back on.

Once in a while, a novel faces the darkness. City On Fire turns into it head on, and if we can take one lesson from Garth Risk Hallberg’s stunning new novel, it’s a comforting, if slightly defiant one: No matter which of those thousands of New Yorks we belong in, we’re all in this together.


City On Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg (Knopf | 9780385353779 | October 13, 2015)

Sam Kaas

Sam Kaas is the Events Coordinator at Village Books in Bellingham, Washington. A typical resident of the Pacific Northwest, he enjoys complex novels, loud music, strong coffee and long walks in the rain.