An ambitious debut, City on Fire paints a portrait of New York in the 60s and 70s, following a group of people as they try to make (or unmake) their lives in the city.
The book begins during Christmas 1976/New Year 1977. It is the time of punk and there is revolution in the air. Mercer is a young black man come up from Alabama to take up a job as a teacher, hoping to break free of his family down South. His lover, William Hamilton-Sweeney, is an artist, also known as Billy Three Sticks when he played in Ex Post Facto, a punk rock band. The Hamilton-Sweeneys are among the richest families in New York, but William has broken with them, including with his beloved sister Regan. His band has been taken over by the appropriately named Nicky Chaos, who becomes obsessed by William. Sam, a young photographer, is a fan of Ex Post Facto and produces her own magazine (zine), which is part diary and part music review. Charlie, a boy in high school, is in love with Sam and trying to come to terms with his father’s death. Richard Gosford is a veteran journalist writing a story on Sam’s father, a pyrotechnician (fireworks maker, simply put). Deputy Inspector Pulaski is investigating the shooting with which the first part of the book ends. And behind so much of the story is the master manipulator, the Demon Brother, Amory Gould—the brother of Felicia Gould, William and Regan’s stepmother—who is working slowly and surely to take over the Hamilton-Sweeney empire. Although, for me, it is the two creative spirits, Sam and William, who are at the heart of this book.
I will not try to summarize the plot: this is a sprawling book, teeming with characters and plotlines, many of which crisscross each other. The two defining moments are the shooting in the early hours of 1 January 1977 and the New York blackout in July that year. But the story ranges much wider than that: it keeps looping back in time, going over the 1960s and 1970s, stopping for “interludes”—a letter from William’s father, Richard’s article, Sam’s zines—and looping back again, with occasional glimpses into the 2000s as a “where are they now” device. The layering builds up the characters and their stories, sometimes narrating the same incident from different perspectives. This is a novel that sucks you into its world.
And the panorama is huge: from gatherings of the rich to junkies, from punk rock bands to the art world, from pyrotechnics to the corporate world, gay, straight, anarchists, corporate manipulators: you have it all. In its scope, it feels almost Dickensian, doing for New York what Dickens did for London, the city a character in its own right.
Garth Risk Hallberg writes well—some of his writing is like photography, capturing a moment in time. Regan in her father’s study: “At sunset, the south-westerly light, unobstructed by any higher building between here and the river, poured through the jewelbox windows. It has made her feel like a passenger on the Titanic: the vessel was doomed, but the memory would be extravagant.” And I love the way Hallberg describes people: Amory tries to persuade Keith, Regan’s husband, to join the family firm. “Amory’s gestures grew somewhat quantitative, like the gestures of a man trying to purchase fabric in a language he doesn’t speak. The Quanto costa gesture, the No, I couldn’t possibly, the Lachesis gesture of measuring something out to have it cut off. … Keith nodded, like a bird following a bit of waved seed.”
As a debut book, this is impressive. It really captures the 60s and 70s in New York, the social mores and what it must have felt like. The book’s weakness is that it is way too long. There were times I got a impatient with the level of detail, which is really not necessary. Pared down, it would have been a more powerful book.
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