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Book Reviews Review: Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire shows flashes of genius but a laborious experience

First-time novelist Garth Risk Hallberg also has written short stories and essays to his name.

Mark Vessey

Title
City on Fire
Author
Garth Risk Hallberg
Publisher
Bond Street Books
Pages
944
Price
$39.95

For the past five months, City on Fire has been taunting me. At 944 pages and carrying so much advance praise you would be forgiven for thinking it was the only non-Jonathan Franzen novel being published this year, it screamed ambition, and demanded attention.

Its back story is irresistible: With only short stories and essays to his name, first-time novelist Garth Risk Hallberg secured an unprecedented $2-million (U.S.) for a sprawling chronicle of 1970s New York, its narrative accented with facsimiled zines, medical reports, diary entries and magazine articles. Combine all that with a creeping nostalgia for a seedier era of Manhattan, a film deal courtesy of superproducer Scott Rudin and a rash of gushing profiles on the perfectly middle-named author, and the novel cried out to be read, dissected, meditated on. Pick it up, or suffer the consequences of a year spent on the outside of the cultural conversation.

So, I held my breath and started feeling the burn in my biceps, the product of lugging around such a hefty book (no e-version for me – I wanted to feel the true weight of this visionary; well, that and I only received a physical copy for review). And, for the first 300 pages or so, I was enthralled.

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Hallberg makes quick, expert work of introducing his characters, creating a captivating window to every stratum of New York society. At the top, there are feuding siblings Regan and William, scions of the Hamilton-Sweeney empire (think the Rockefellers crossed with the Astors crossed with late-night reruns of Dynasty). A few notches below are Keith and Mercer, the former being Regan's well-meaning if adulterous husband and the latter William's black, would-be novelist lover. Another rung down (Long Island, specifically) are Charlie and Sam, two punk-loving teens who will risk everything to follow their favourite band to the depths of Alphabet City. And scattered in between are all manner of cops, journalists, groupies, lawyers, misfits, nannies, bankers, firework experts and would-be terrorists. Just another day on the A train.

As everyone's stories begin to bump up against one another – messily, perhaps all-too-conveniently – Hallberg builds a genuine sense of narrative electricity: The city starts coming to life on the page. Despite the fact he was born three years after the novel's climax (the riotous blackout of July 13, 1977), the author has a remarkable talent for sketching out the necessary details that conjure a specific time and place. Times Square is a sex pit, Hell's Kitchen is a bombed-out war zone, Central Park is a death trap and the Upper East Side is, well, it's still nice and rich and full of town homes large enough to hide the indiscretions of the elite.

But then it all falls apart.

Around the point of his second "interlude" – a faux draft of a magazine feature written by one of the novel's side characters, a New Journalism devotee that's both a dig at and tip of the hat to Tom Wolfe – I realized Hallberg was too often dipping into a rabbit hole of ephemera. Whenever the novel gained momentum, it doubled back over itself, travelling five, 10, 20 years into the past to sketch out every detail of William's sexual awakening, or Regan's college years, or Mercer's humble Southern upbringing. The murder-mystery plot at the centre of the novel stalled. The city felt tired and so did I.

So I did what any sensible person would do, and I put the beast down. I let my wrists take a break, and I moved on from the 944-page elephant in the room. For five months. Until, that is, I realized City on Fire was finally coming out, and my review was due and suddenly the work of it all hit me: the sheer effort it would take to march through Hallberg's urban jungle of $10 words and fanciful digressions and hey-that's-neat connections. Hallberg's effort was easy to admire, but this was no longer a novel or an experience. It was labour.

And diving right in again, back to the beginning, only further exposed the sheer toil of it all. The verbal gymnastics, the endless digressions, the needless flashbacks and flash-forwards (though I admit the way Hallberg sketches out the novel's ending far before it actually arrives is a neat trick). Even the novel's characters, who seemed so easy to love at the outset, began to fall apart into a mess of clichés. Hallberg cannot get a proper handle on Mercer, for one, and reduces his Georgia-based parents to a slop of Southern Fried caricatures. William feels like every tortured genius ever put to the page. Side characters, too, are mixed, seemingly parachuted in from other worlds altogether. A cop named Pulaski who's this close to retirement? An art expert named Augenblick who purrs like a fey cat? There's even a literally evil stepmother out to make sure no one lives happily ever after.

The whole effort might have been worth it had the novel's much-hyped blackout-set climax somehow glued every broken piece together. But again, Hallberg is hungrier than he is patient, with the finale – featuring father-son reunions, police chases, anarchy in the streets, lost children etc., etc. – being both overwrote and overwrought. Flashes of genius prose abound, but it's easier to drown in Hallberg's chaotic sea of characters and coincidences than it is to swim. City on Fire is a staggering work of genius in desperate need of an editor.

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I'm sure, though, that it will make a great two-hour movie.

Barry Hertz is the deputy editor of Globe Arts.

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