City on Fire

cityonfireCity on Fire
by Garth Risk Hallberg
2015 / (946 pages)
read by Rebecca Lowman and others/ 37h 53m
rating  9  or A+++ /   literary crime

It’s disconcerting to have decided that for historical fiction to be historical it has to be set in times prior to the author’s birth – and then find a piece of historical fiction (by this definition) set in a time when you were already an adult! Did I become historical when I wasn’t looking?  Young whippersnapper! The author’s age is 36,  he was born in 1979 and he pens a work of fiction taking place in New York essentially circa 1977.  (I will not say how old I was then.)  Oh well, as Wm Faulkner muttered (and Hallberg quotes) – “The past is not even past.”  –

Anyway, Hallberg’s really long tale opens on Christmas Eve 1976 and continues into mid-1977 for the main story,  but backstories go into the 1960s and prior while there are some scenes of the aftermath.  The main story is not linear but it’s close.

Yes, there is a shooting in the first few chapters and its resolution (it’s a who-done-it along with a very brief section of police procedural)  is woven into the rest of the main story narratives – it’s all interconnected.    Still,  I wouldn’t really call this a “crime” novel – possibly literary crime but  the interwoven relationships of the characters,  their other interests (some criminal including court battles), their backgrounds and their involvement in New York is the focus.  The actual crime plot becomes secondary but  there are times where that’s what really stitches the mosaic together.

More important than the little crime story is that the relationships of the main characters all seem to be disintegrating right along with  New York City  of the 1970s as Hailberg examines his fictional characters from the Upper West Side and Hell’s Kitchen to Greenwich Village and all the way out to Flower Hill on Long Island.  – crime is up, fear is up, the stock market is sliding, housing is getting higher priced and a more decrepit  and dangerous life for the squatters.  Sex, drugs and punk & roll seem to be the order of the day.

Children raised in single-parent homes due to divorce,  death and remarriage or not are abundant.    “The only thing which hasn’t abandoned me,”  says one of the major  younger characters,  “is the City.”   And of course the ideas of  estrangement, loneliness, alienation and identity come up repeatedly and how the characters bring some of this on themselves.

Hailberg has a nice flowing style with nicely written dialogue including some interesting vocabulary used in appropriate places.  There’s a sincere feel to the novel and just enough foreshadowing to add a bit of tension where needed.  And he also knows how to use little cliffhangers.  The structure of alternating voices and times are told in many chapters (and “Interludes”)  of various lengths which also increases the pace.

But the use of “fire” as a central metaphor with all manner of things burning, etc.  gets used right up to the point of annoying. Even the title is a metaphor.  I normally love this type of thing when it’s original and done in keeping with the themes,  but something feels a bit facile here – not as original as they could be perhaps, too direct. Hallberg writes beautifully.

The “plots”  follows the stories of most of these characters and provides backstory on a number of them.  The way the characters are connected to each other is a huge theme.  There’s a lot of 1970s music talk –  and from what I gather Haillberg catches the art and rock scene ambiance of the city during those times, as did Rachel Kushner in The Flamethrowers – but at least Kushner was a child during those times.

It did get a bit draggy in the middle where we are reading about the city and other matters in the written ruminations of a self-absorbed older teen-age girl – names, places, music (Patti Smith), politics,  notes –  Patti Smith.  I suppose it’s to add authenticity to the history,  to give the girl more depth, texture, – I don’t know – it’s draggy.

But the story is building to the blackout of New York City in 1977 –  well done –  well, well done!  Wonderfully well done.  🙂

There are echoes of  The Great Gatsby‘s Nick Carroway in Mercer Goodman.  Bonfire of the Vanities (1987 – Tom Wolfe) in Keith Lamplighter,  a Holden Caulfield in Charlie Weisbarger and the Lower East side of Richard Price.  And there are similarities to A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and probably lots of other contemporary novels about New York.  Several reviewers see Don DeLillo and that’s possible –

The characters seem to represent all segments of New York population from the richest capitalists to the poorest squatters, from the artists to the cops.  But it’s mostly young people (ages 17 to 35) who populate the novel.

The major characters in order of appearance:
Mercer Goodman – gay, black, mid-20s
William Hamilton-Sweeney III  roommate of Mercer, mid-30s,
(on the verge of breaking up)

Regan Hamilton-Sweeney Lamplighter – sister of William, mid-30s
Keith Lamplighter – Regan’s husband – financial advisor, mid-30s
(on the verge of breaking up)
2 children –

Samantha Cicciaro – age 18  – smart, college student, punkish, rock groupie, addict
Charlie Weisbarger age 17, kind of punkish – wanna-be boyfriend of Sam
Cicciarro – Samantha’s father – lives in Flower Hill Long Island – a fireworks provider

William Hamilton-Sweeney II –  father of Regan and William, wealthy financier
(aka Billy Three-stick)
Felicia Gould – William II’s second wife  (first wife died)
Amory Gould – Felicia’s brother -aka the Demon Brother (and CEO or something)

Nicky Chaos – punk rock star  (song title – “City on Fire)
other band members i.e. Venus de Nylon, Bruno,  Sewer Girl,
D. Tremens, Saul  – (as well as Samantha and Charlie Weisbarger)

Polaski – police officer/detective,  older with crutches, married
Sherry Polaski –  wife of detective-

Richard Groskoph –   journalist, investigating shooting and writing a book on fireworks
Jenny Nguyen – Richard’s neighbor and an art gallery assistant

Zig Zigler – almost nothing on the real guy –

1977 New York City blackout:

New Yorker 

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