City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg’s much ballyhooed debut novel, is simultaneously way, way too long (it clocks in at 900+ pages) and not nearly long enough. Here’s how that’s possible: It felt too long because there were times, especially in the first few hundred pages, when I struggled to convince myself to pick up it again. But then as the novel gains momentum at about the halfway point, it’s as riveting as any thriller. And what’s more: Hallberg is an absolutely enthralling writer. Even when I was bored by the seemingly superfluous background info on one or any of the multitude of characters, I still appreciated how smooth and elegant he is to read. And that’s why, in addition to the fact that this is a story that could’ve continued for several (dozen?) more years exploring the lives of these characters (most of whom I now really miss), I could’ve read several hundred more pages of this prose.
It’s a truly great novel, a rather awe-inspiring accomplishment for a debut. Here’s the deal: It’s New Year’s Eve, 1976, and we swing all around New York City to be introduced to a variety of characters, punks and detectives, Blue Bloods and anarchists, devious businessmen, teachers, journalists, and artists. The novel itself is plotted around a shooting in Central Park on this fateful New Year’s night. So the novel is ostensibly a murder mystery, but of course, so much more. Hurdling to a conclusion the following summer, the night of July 13, 1977, the famed New York City Blackout, the novel forges a series of connections, both coincidental and not, between this cast of highly fascinating people.
The enduring image in my head as I spent nearly a month with this book was of the writer as a builder — each little chapter (and there are 94 total) fills in a gap of the story, like a brick in a wall, slowly building the complete mural or portrait on that wall. Hallberg also gives us “interludes” between each of the seven sections of the novel. These are awesome. From a punk’s fanzine to a journalist’s Truman Capote-esque investigative article, these set pieces add to the fullness of the portrait and are a joy to take in. That’s not always the case for strategies like this — often they feel like distractions.
But slowly we learn about how all these characters are connected, and how solving a crime, in many ways, is like real life in that it’s a “grid of connections” that brings the meaning to the mystery. The fluidity of time is also a hallmark for Hallberg, and certainly one of the reasons he chose the structure he did — constantly moving back and forth from real-time action to background info. Also, there are lots of birds — symbols for many things, which you can puzzle out for yourself if you decide to take on this challenge.
In sum: Yes, this is a novel that’s worth the time. But if you start it, commit yourself to finishing it! The majority of the lukewarm reviews on this novel are readers who didn’t finish it. This, to me, is a travesty. You don’t get the full portrait otherwise — it’s like judging the Mona Lisa by only seeing a sliver (to borrow a sentiment from this fantastic Atlantic piece). It’s a battle that may wear you down at times, but a rewarding one in the end.
(This piece first appeared on my personal blog, The New Dork Review of Books.)