Theodore Yurevitch

Few debut novels get the kind of attention—and the multi-million dollar advance—that Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire has. But to say that this book deserves the buzz understates what is hardly an understated accomplishment. Like the work of other literary masters (Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace and Donna Tartt are just a few of the novelists worth drawing comparisons to), this is a book that will endure in many ways.

On the surface level, City on Fire is a mystery. New York City, New Years Eve, as the year turns to 1977: a girl, Sam Cicciaro, is shot in Central Park. While this is the inciting incident—an old detective grows obsessed with the case; a washed-up journalist tries to find meaning through his own investigation—the narrative strays far and wide. It oscillates around New York City, through the perspectives of pretty much every character related to the case. Hallberg crafts men and women both gay and straight, black and white, young and old—all with such precision and empathy that even the villains feel alive and complexly human.

One of the main plotlines follows a rich and powerful family of Manhattanites, glancingly reminiscent of Salinger’s Glass family. Another trudges in the grime and bohemian color of the Lower East Side’s punk-rock scene, where Patti Smith and post-humanism reign supreme. Interspersed between these temporally and geographically expansive sections are found-writing type documents: hand-written journal entries, psychological profiles, collaged fanzines. It’s a large novel that takes its time giving each character attention, and is full of stylistic innovation, but never gets too cute with its doses of post-modern artifice. The connections arise and converge, ultimately culminating in the blackout of 1977 and a novel that triumphs over both New York City and stories themselves.

But like Roberto Bolaño’s magnum opus, 2666, the story itself is not propelled by plot or incident, but by the details. What Hallberg has achieved is subtlety original, considering how much fun it is to read the cinematic collection of scenes and follow the numerous story arcs. Through this panorama of characters, Hallberg explores what it means to feel alone in a city of millions. And while it certainly is long, what will last about this book is a sense of empathy for myriad multicolored lives, a feeling that stays in the heart even after having put down the book.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Garth Risk Hallberg about City on Fire.

Few debut novels get the kind of attention—and the multi-million dollar advance—that Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire has. But to say that this book deserves the buzz understates what is hardly an understated accomplishment.

Few novels manage to be both coy and brusquely honest, uproarious and profoundly affecting. Even fewer are about teeth—and yet Mexican author Valeria Luiselli’s second work of fiction, The Story of My Teeth, is all of the above. But even more so, this eccentric work is about stories themselves. Recalling the literary traditions of Renata Adler, Roberto Bolaño and Julio Cortázar, Luiselli abandons the traditional form of a novel in favor of something startlingly original to do this rambunctious and bittersweet story justice.

Divided into seven sections, The Story of My Teeth lays everything out at the start—chapter one, after all, is titled: “The Story (Beginning, Middle, and End).” Indeed, the life of this novel’s protagonist, Gustavo Sanchez Sanchez (aka Highway), is chronicled from beginning to end in this very first section. Born with terrible malocclusion, Highway rambles around the Americas until he becomes a world-class auctioneer, constantly in search for both salvation and the most glorious set of dentures—which he finally finds in an extremely unusual turn of events. As Highway would say: End of Story.

But Highway’s tale doesn’t end here. In a series of stories set in miniature, the following sections chronicle the various histories of famous teeth, from Plato’s to Virginia Woolf’s, as well as other episodes and characters that blur the line between fact and fiction. These sections form a sort of analog—including images, timelines and other devices—yet always reflect back to Highway as the narrative pinwheels around him, presenting revisionist histories and ulterior insights into the significance of storytelling itself.

Finishing The Story of My Teeth will leave you wanting more of Luiselli’s sense of humor and grace, her perfect ear for entertainment and epiphany. But more importantly, this novel will change the way you look at writing and stories—and will reveal that in the end, what is imagined is as important as anything else.

Few novels manage to be both coy and brusquely honest, uproarious and profoundly affecting. Even fewer are about teeth—and yet Mexican author Valeria Luiselli’s second work of fiction, The Story of My Teeth, is all of the above. But even more so, this eccentric work is about stories themselves.

Janis Cooke Newman, author of Mary: Mrs. A. Lincoln, once again brings history to life with her sophomore novel, A Master Plan for Rescue. Here, Newman explores New York City as World War II percolates across the Atlantic. Her remarkable novel is filled with stories within stories that recall the superhero serials that its gifted 12-year-old, Jack Quinlan, wholeheartedly believes in. 

Like Anthony Doerr in All the Light We Cannot See, Newman renders this time with subtle magic and cinematic grace notes, and intertwines the lives of two very different protagonists. Jack meets a young Jewish immigrant who is capable of fixing any machine, but unable to save what’s most important to him—and who has his own story to tell. The two band together with a group of eclectic sidekicks to develop a plan to save Jewish lives across the ocean.

Newman folds an array of narrative voices into one another throughout this finely polished novel. The leaps made from one protagonist’s tale to another build a grand story about deception, truth and storytelling—all while maintaining a perfect balance of plot and ideas. Newman crafts characters and period details that show an enormous amount of research without ever feeling overwhelming. Messages are often sent in secret—whether it be from a serial inspired “code-o-graph” or from a rooftop pigeon coop—but what is clear is that as filled with heartbreak as A Master Plan for Rescue is, it is also gorgeously hopeful.

 

This article was originally published in the July 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Janis Cooke Newman, author of Mary: Mrs. A. Lincoln, once again brings history to life with her sophomore novel, A Master Plan for Rescue. Here, Newman explores New York City as World War II percolates across the Atlantic. Her remarkable novel is filled with stories within stories that recall the superhero serials that its gifted 12-year-old, Jack Quinlan, wholeheartedly believes in.

Paul Beatty is not afraid to push and shatter the boundaries of political correctness. Like many of his other works—including his acclaimed debut The White Boy ShuffleThe Sellout is unafraid to ask big questions about America. In this gorgeously eclectic novel, Beatty tells the story of a black man cast out from his hometown of Dickens, California—a man considered to be a sellout for everything from listening to Neil Young and reading Franz Kafka to growing and selling watermelon for a living. It doesn’t matter that these watermelons are the world’s best, or that he is the son of a maniacal psychologist bent on testing racial identity.

But when Dickens is removed from the map, the sellout comes up with an idea to not only bring back the neighborhood, but to remind everyone of what it means to be a community. With the help of Hominy Jenkins, a self-purported slave and local celebrity of “Little Rascals” fame, the narrator sets out to re-instate segregation—forcing the world, and the reader, to question how segregated this country already is.

It’s a dark but comic plot that shapes this angry satire, but Beatty is less interested in getting to the end as he is in exploring the myriad experiences of being black in America and an individual in a society. He does so with freewheeling prose that is electric with intelligence, and yet never above the reader’s head. In a single sentence he might reference obscure existentialist philosophers alongside string theory and bebop jazz, but it is all with respect for the reader’s ability and no distinction between highbrow or low.

At once hysteric and hysterical, angry and full of heart, The Sellout is a smart, funny and distinctly American novel.

Theodore Yurevitch is a writer and editor at the Nashville Review. 

In this gorgeously eclectic novel, Beatty tells the story of a black man cast out from his hometown of Dickens, California—a man considered to be a sellout for everything from listening to Neil Young and reading Franz Kafka to growing and selling watermelon for a living.

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