Sunday, November 1, 2015
Review: "City on Fire" by Garth Risk Hallberg
A book with not only the size and scope, but the hype of Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut wrist dislocater City on Fire, has some mighty big shoes to fill. Already, I can see some reviewers giving this book a bad review simply because of how popular it is and how lucky Hallberg got with its $2 million dollar advance. In contrast to that, I can see it going the exact opposite direction, where reviewers are a little too kind to this book, ignoring some of its more glaring flaws and hailing it a masterpiece. I find myself more on the latter’s side, since I loved this book quite a bit, in all its maddening glory, but I have to be the first to admit that there are some aspects of this 911 page novel that some people will be utterly turned off by, and as one reviewer put it, it’s a novel that is doomed to sit on the shelf next to books like Infinite Jest and 2666 as books that are never going to be finished. Luckily, it is a little bit more mainstream than that, having more in common with the books of Donna Tart than David Foster Wallace or Roberto Bolano. To me at least, this book was a joyous, intricate tome filled with equal parts uphill battles of plot and character and rewards that are grand enough to take the reader’s breath away. The book has about, off the top of my head, five or six central characters, and a plot that centers on a shooting outside Central Park on New Year’s Eve and ends with the citywide blackout on July 13th 1977. We are first introduced to William Hamilton-Sweeny, a sire to one of New York’s most famous families with a brutal backstory, and his boyfriend Mercer Goodman, a transplant from the South who wants to be a writer, who suffers through William’s almost psychotic imbalances of commitment and dishonesty. In the same town, Charlie Weisberger and Samantha Cicciaro, two best friends, knee deep in the burgeoning NYC punk scene, and William’s sister Regan and her husband, Keith Lamplighter, who are both rocked by Keith’s infidelity and the federal charges the family company faces. How these seemingly unconnected souls interact, intertwine and sometimes collide with one another, as well as a number of others, is the true joy of this book lies. This book as many revelations, and when they come together across hundreds of pages, I felt the kind of elation that comes with reading books big of size and heart like this one. Some people will find plot very convoluted and some of the sentences Hallberg uses too dense to enjoy. But the positives here massively outweigh the negatives. This is a book whose weight and heft are earned and likewise reward the reader’s patience. It’s a novel showing the complexity of everyday life, how connections are made we are not always aware of, and how we are never as alone as we think. For me at least, this book most definitely lives up to the hype.