City On Fire

Posted on February 23, 2016

Reviewed by Roy Trakin.

Garth Risk Hallberg – City On Fire (Alfred A. Knopf)

This sprawling, 900-page Dickensian/Proustian novel takes place in New York City in the midst of its mid-‘70s Gerald Ford “Drop Dead” decline, its Lower East Side slums giving way to a punk rock upheaval, culminating in the blackout of July 13, 1977, when it appeared all hell had broken loose.

Starting with a quote from the band Television, the winding narrative concerns a young Long Island suburbanite who is shot on New Year’s Eve 1976 in Central Park, a young punk fanzine editor (whose issue is recreated as one of several interludes in the book along with a handwritten mea culpa letter from a father to a son and a coffee-stained manuscript of a magazine article about an Italian family in the fireworks business seemingly based on the Gruccis).

Like Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, Hallberg – a first-time novelist who received a $2 million advance – intricately weaves together the various social strata in the city at the time, from rapacious bankers looking to take advantage of entire blocks in the Bronx burning to the ground, to a punk-rock anarchist bent on apocalyptic destruction.

It’s all here, from ticking time bombs to a detailed description of heroin’s ravages, from an African-American kid from the rural South bent on writing the Great American Novel to his lover, the scion of one of New York’s wealthiest families who drummed for an iconic punk band only to follow his destiny as a painter and then world-famous photographer. It’s both a snapshot of the times and a page-turning narrative in its own right, an epic tale of a father-son reunion set against the backdrop of a city poised between a cultural revolution and the looming specter of 9/11.

About Brian Wise