It is from the distance between an author’s ambitions and his finished novel that we may measure his literary chops. So when an author, knowing this cold calculus, undertakes to write the Great American Novel – or at least the Great New York Novel – in his debut outing, we stand in his presence. And when that author succeeds beyond our wildest hopes, we bow in supplication.
All hail Garth Risk Hallberg.
At the center of Hallberg’s magnificent “City on Fire” (Alfred A. Knopf), like the vibrating nucleus of an unstable isotope, stands Manhattan itself, circa 1976-77. The electron-cloud of characters caught in its gravitational orbit includes William Hamilton- Sweeny III, the estranged son of an aging Wall Street financier, and Mercer Goodman, a recent arrival to Gotham who’s become William’s lover and social conscience. Regan Lamplighter, William’s sister, is trying to reassemble the shards of her life after separating from her husband Keith, who’s been caught having a fling with young Samantha Cicciaro, an NYU dropoutturned- photographer and muse to a rag-tag gang of punk-rockers with anarchist tendencies who style themselves the Post-Humanists.
The Post-Humanists, all former bandmates of William, are in the clandestine employ of William’s family, thanks to the nefarious offices of Amory Gould, a scheming step-uncle whose manifesto of business ethics could fit in a fortune cookie. Add to this Charlie Weisbarger, a disaffected punk wannabe and former Long Island schoolmate of Samantha’s who strives for admission to the Post-Humanist cabal, and Richard Groskoph, a journalist whose profile of Samantha’s father, fireworks expert Carmine Cicciaro, will explode into a bigger story than ever he’d dared imagine.
All are complex and richly-drawn characters whose disparate narratives coalesce when Samantha is shot in Central Park on New Year’s Eve while waiting to confront Keith outside a Hamilton-Sweeny family soiree. Enter Larry Pulaski, a world-weary NYPD detective tasked with untangling these various connections and pursuing them to their shocking climax just as the Great Blackout of 1977 – a real event – plunges New York City into 12 hours of terror, arson, and unbridled mayhem.
What distinguishes “City on Fire,” and what elevates it into the rarified company of Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities” and Amy Waldman’s “The Submission,” is the panoramic scope of the undertaking. The novel’s 900-plus pages dissect not just the characters they depict and the city of their parturition, but also such diverse and complex subjects as parental love, teen angst, race relations, marital fidelity, corporate greed, white privilege, gender politics, modern art, sibling rivalry, neighborhood gentrification, and cultural alienation.
Moreover, Hallberg employs a dizzying array of narrative devices – so-called Interludes that include correspondence, news articles, fanzines, and journal entries – to augment his immensely stylish prose. The result is an engrossing and edifying novel that captures not just the sights and sounds of the city, but also the grit and tumult of an era – the post-Watergate ‘70s of Patti Smith and “Disco Inferno,” Son of Sam and “Taxi Driver” – that left an indelible mark not just on New York’s culture and politics, but on the nation at large.
Whether you actually survived mid- ’70s New York (as I did) or whether you’ve never ventured east of the Hudson River, you’ll find in “City on Fire” a flashing, wheezing calliope of a novel that offers both a time-capsule’s glimpse into a bygone era and an xray’s view into the heart of the human condition.
Impressive stuff indeed for a firsttime novelist, and reason why Garth Risk Hallberg can stake his claim alongside David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, and Jonathan Franzen as one of the incandescent lights of modern American letters.
Chuck Greaves is the award-winning author of five novels, most recently “Tom & Lucky” (Bloomsbury.) You can visit him at www.chuckgreaves.com.