City On Fire
By Garth Risk Hallberg
Let me start by saying that City on Fire requires a bit of a commitment. At over 900 pages, some have argued that it’s far too long. But if you’re up to the task, this novel is worth it.
Set in the crime-ridden, dirty and corrupt New York City of 1976/77, City on Fire is populated by an eclectic cast of New Yorkers: the rich Hamilton-Sweeney clan; Mercer Goodman, an innocent, gay, black southerner who has moved to the city; Sam Cicciaro and Charlie Weisberger, two kids from Long Island who feel the pull of the punk scene and immerse themselves in the city; and Sam’s father, Carmine, whose expertise with fireworks has been discarded by the city in favour of big conglomerate fireworks. His story makes up several “interludes” in which we learn about the history of fireworks in America.
There are many, many more characters in the novel, all of whom are connected in some way, although most of them don’t know it. When one of the main characters is shot in Central Park on New Year’s Eve, it seems possible that almost any one of them could have been the culprit.
City on Fire is part mystery, certainly. But it’s also an homage to the lonely people that populate New York – the way they are interconnected even as they languish alone. And New York itself figures prominently in the book. Streets, intersections, boroughs and landmarks create its ever-present backdrop. The seedy undercurrents of the city, the arts scene, the filthy-rich developers, and suburban culture all feed into the story.
The book culminates in the famous blackout of 1977 and each character must endure a long difficult night of chaos on the streets. Like the roaming bands of rioters determined to “take back the city”, they come to terms with their lives and relationships as they face the darkness, both physical and emotional.
I loved the grittiness of this novel, and I became lost in the story. The characters, the mystery and the strong sense of place make City on Fire more of an experience than a linear narrative. I highly recommend it!