Before deciding whether to tackle Garth Risk Hallberg’s massive debut novel, “City on Fire,” even the most avid reader can be excused for asking whether it’s worth the commitment that effort will demand. The answer is an emphatic yes. Hallberg’s deep and wide survey of the turbulent world of New York City in the 1970s is an immersive story and a distinctive contribution to the field of what might be called the fictional sociology of urban life.
Employing as many as 10 points of view, the novel braids the lives of an impressively diverse group of characters — from unscrupulous Wall Street financiers to troubled Long Island teenagers — and spans the period from the beginning of 1977 to the New York City blackout of July 13-14, 1977.
Although it would be inaccurate to characterize “City on Fire” as a mystery, the shooting of a young woman in Central Park on New Year’s Eve 1977 provides the puzzle at its heart. Skillfully linked to it are subplots involving financial manipulation, the activities of an anarchist group that calls itself the Post-Humanist Phalanx (PHP) and even a fascinating digression into the world of people who set off fireworks for a living.
Given its scope, it wouldn’t be surprising to find the novel’s energy flagging at times, as it inevitably departs from its most compelling plot lines. But whether he’s inside a Sutton Place mansion or the bleak Bowery hideout of the PHP, Hallberg is committed to the truth of his characters’ experience and engaged with the pure storytelling demands of a complex tale about people barely in control of their lives — in a city that’s in no better shape.
Hallberg juggles various literary forms — letters, manuscripts, medical records, even a teen fanzine — threaded through a conventional third-person narrative. His work evokes favorable comparisons to the style and concerns of writers such as Tom Wolfe, Richard Price, Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen. With its subject matter of New York City during a harrowing time, “City on Fire” merits inclusion with Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin” and Rachel Kushner’s “The Flamethrowers.”
In this time of truncated attention spans, there’s a certain audacity to producing a novel that, at 903 pages, is at least three times longer than the average. As you give yourself over to the spell of “City on Fire,” though, you’ll appreciate that any shorter and less intricately constructed work wouldn’t have done justice to the ambition and power of Hallberg’s transfixing vision.
Harvey Freedenberg is a freelance reviewer and member of the National Book Critics Circle. He writes from Harrisburg, Pa.