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.