New York City in the mid-1970s was on the skids. Its municipal bonds were under water--inspiring the iconic Daily News headline after it was denied a federal bailout: "Ford to City: Drop Dead." Graffiti was splashed over subway cars and stations. Times Square was a porno sleaze-pot. Brooklyn was still affordable. Smokers were welcome, and the High Line was a dangerous, rusty eyesore. Even all the lights went out, in the blackout of 1977. Those times, that city and its citizens are the stars of Garth Risk Hallberg's galactic first novel.
With more than 900 pages, City on Fire is an ambitious, omnivorous story of dozens of characters whose lives increasingly intersect despite their economic, social and ethnic differences. At its center is the Central Park shooting of Samantha "Sam" Cicciaro, a young fanzine publisher and groupie of the storied punk band Ex Post Facto. Sam is the longed-for girlfriend of 17-year-old punk wannabe Charlie Weisbarger, who sneaks into East Village clubs wearing his pajama bottoms under his jeans to make them look tighter, "like he was a fifth Ramone." She is also the lover of financier Keith Lamplighter, son-in-law of the old-money Hamilton-Sweeney real estate scion, as well as main squeeze of the band's soundman Solomon Grungy. Daughter of the stubborn Italian owner of the oldest, most successful fireworks company in the city, Sam tries to break away from her strict Long Island family to make herself "a kind of Minerva of suburbia: fierce, cosmopolitan, dependent on no one." Everybody seems to love Sam, but nobody knows who tried to kill her. On this New Year's Eve shooting, Hallberg builds a complicated story, as much a crime thriller as a social commentary on a time when New York wasn't the expensive playground of the hip and rich that it seems today.
A contributing editor of the online magazine the Millions and author of the 2007 novella A Field Guide to the North-American Family, Hallberg thinks big and writes small. Whether describing a steamy summer with its "dog-slaying, hydrant-bursting, power-sucking July days" or the poverty of a Vietnamese gallerist trying to sustain "another few months of loosies and ramen and rent," Hallberg takes on the whole city, top to bottom, while breaking up his long novel with brief interludes of facsimile manuscripts and doodles, such as an early draft magazine article (complete with coffee cup stains) about Sam's father, or a copy of Sam's mimeographed zine Land of a Thousand Dances ("reading it was like subletting a small apartment in someone else's head"). If there is a little of Richard Price, Lawrence Block and Tom Wolfe hovering behind City on Fire, the novel is nonetheless all Hallberg all the time. He culminates his powerful saga in the July blackout, when the strings of his story tie satisfyingly together. Despite its somewhat seedy ambience, New York City in the '70s may also have been the city at its most lively.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared on Shelf Awareness.