City on Fire is a writer’s gift to readers. It sets out to give us a grungy, punky picture of NYC in the 70’s and it succeeds – wonderfully. We can’t leave out unbridled-greed-without-moral-filters which is the true fireworks in this epic tale. It’s a good thing Garth Risk Hallberg is such a good writer because you will invest some time in this novel, especially if you are busy and have to read in snatches, which is actually a good way to read City on Fire, because it does not have a linear story structure.
This is New York City, home to millions, but more intimate than you might imagine. The line between a fireworks expert (Carmine) and a multimillion dollar family (the Hamilton-Sweeney’s, the Demon Brother), for example – or the line between the firework’s makers daughter (Sam) and a high school boy (Charlie) with red hair – the line between an old policeman with crutches (Pulaski)and a disenchanted newspaperman (Richard Groskoph) who stumbles onto an interesting story about fireworks but writes a different kind of story altogether – the connection between all these people and a defunct punk band whose leader Billy Three-Sticks (William Hamilton-Sweeney) let his band be taken over by a control freak named Nicky Chaos.
It is the Bicentennial year of 1776 when the key events in this story begin, and NYC, while definitely almost a character in this story, is not at its best. The city is on the edge of bankruptcy and the city actually is on fire. There are fires burning in the more derelict parts of town. The sound effects most prominent in Hallberg’s book are gun shots, backfires, explosions both planned and unplanned, both legal and illegal, controlled and not controlled. The author gives a foreshadowing of the events of 9/11, still far in the future, by focusing our attention on a pair of long views of the World Trade Center which will one day be destroyed in an unimaginable fire. The characters react to the corruption of a city where inequality is on display in the very architecture of the neighborhoods
The book is a mystery wrapped in an enigma – I know, terribly overused phrase, but quite appropriate here. There are a number of mysteries to be solved and a number of people with pieces of the story. Two of the people with a role in untangling events are newcomers to New York City (Mercer, Jenny) and that offers a message too. Sometimes we, the reader, know who the perpetrators are, sometimes we don’t (although we may eventually untangle events. If you don’t manage to figure things out yourself, you won’t get any help from the author. There is no Agatha Christie summing up at the end, and this is not at all a formula piece, no matter how much fun those may be.
I was sorry when I finished City on Fire because I have punctuated recent days with a chapter here and a chapter there, but the things the author tangentially shares with us about his faith in human nature and how hard that fabled NYC can be on people’s dreams will stay with me and lend a bit of grunge to my days for a while.
By Nancy Brisson