Originally published December 2015
I blew out my eyeballs on this one.
To finish Garth Risk Hallberg’s 900+page “City On Fire” before the end of the year required me to go on a bit of a reading bender these last two days. I will cop to a bit of speed reading toward the end—as I mentioned to a friend also in the throes of this novel, “It’s like The Goldfinch all over again.”
And it was—like Donna Tartt’s bestseller, “City On Fire” is, to me, more like an artwork and less simply a story. The centerpiece—the tangled web that connects a group of NYC denizens over the stretch of several months in 1977—is a great piece of storytelling that is blanketed by pages and pages of grandiose verbosity. If I had bothered with a dictionary while reading, I probably wouldn’t have finished this book before 2017. (Note to self: This is where e-reading could be really amazing.)
The cast of characters is expansive: There’s Billy Three Sticks and his cohorts that make up the band Ex Post Facto and its Post Humanist groupies, including Sol, D.T, Sewer Girl and Nicky Chaos; Billy’s family, the obscenely wealthy Hamilton-Sweeneys, including his father Old Bill, stepmother Felicia, creepy step-uncle Amory, sister Regan and her husband, Keith; Billy’s lover, Mercer Goodman, and let’s not forget Larry, Jenny, Richard, Bruno, Carmine and of course the girl at the center of the whodunit, Samantha, and her kinda sorta boyfriend, Charlie.
Hallberg sets the stage on New Year’s Eve 1976 and takes readers into the city-stank depths of an NYC July, with occasional trips back in time so we can be better acquainted with the characters’ beginnings and middles. It’s a story about love, friendship, chaos, rebellion, murder, fire, drugs (and more drugs and more drugs and geez nearly everyone does drugs in this book) and one of my favorite themes, whacked out family dysfunction. This is one of those reads that took me a good 200 pages before I was sold on it, and mostly because at that point, I feel like I’ve committed and can only go forward to finish the story. I don’t regret the time investment—it was a great story—but it’s exhausting and like The Goldfinch, I think there are several chunks that could have disappeared and I would have been none the wiser. Mercer’s trip home, for example, or the entire character of Jenny. I get they serve a purpose, and were I to go back and re-read it I might get more out of it, but like many of the characters, I am ready to move on.