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City on Fire – a book review

Late last night I finished reading Garth Risk Hallberg’s sprawling epic first novel, City on Fire. I bought the hardcover one day, wandering through a bookstore looking for something I could really sink my teeth into. City on Fire served up as much as I could chew. When I bought my copy, I didn’t know this book kicked up quite a fuss as a highly anticipated novel. Later I read that several publishing houses vied for City on Fire and Hallberg was, if what I’ve read around the internet is true, paid $2 Million up front.

A 900 page novel asks for a lot of commitment from the reader. It takes plenty of faith that the novelist will look after you along the way. On top of everything else, the damned book is heavy and awkward. I was worried when I began this novel because Hallberg’s early treatment of the first characters he introduced us to didn’t ring true or “feel right” to me. I carried on though, to discover a book that develops its characters with remarkable clarity and detail over time.

This is a tremendously ambitious novel with a grand scope. It’s set in New York in the mid-70s, and is chock full of characters from all walks of life who are cleverly, seemingly impossibly linked through a New Years shooting and resolved after the July blackout of 1977. I suppose City on Fire takes a shot at being a definitive historical novel about New York in the 70s.

We meet a spectrum of characters from the NY financial elite to punks, police to anarchists. I was reminded a little of the television show The Wire, which dealt with many aspects of Baltimore life linked together by common characters and a central narrative thread. Where The Wire sectioned off themes by season, City on Fire bounces the reader back and forth between story lines, between characters, and even back and forth in time, and it does so in tremendous detail.

The prose is beautiful, each sentence carefully, lovingly constructed. This is a double-edged sword though. While Hallberg tries to get the reader to understand and empathize with his characters, there are places in which his sophisticated writing style and at times ostentatious choice of obscure words just gets in the way.

City on Fire is a remarkable novel but in my view it is in need of some serious editing. There is so much going on, so many characters, so many parts of the storyline, but some of it just didn’t warrent the lengthy treatment it received. Although I appreciated the detail and the pace of character development, at times that pace dragged and bogged down. I think with a mission to present this in a couple hundred pages less, Hallberg might have created the great novel this book tries to be.

In spite of my criticism of City on Fire, I’m going to recommend you read it. It may not be a great novel but it is a very very good one. Flawed as it may be it sets the bar high for 2016 and I don’t think I’ll soon forget it.




  1. Hi Eugene, Great Review! I read City on Fire in the Spring and I couldn’t agree more. It’s ambitious, sprawling and contains some stunning prose, but it needed trimming. It was destined to be the season’s “it” novel meant to be gulped down whole. I also enjoyed it, and it’s interesting that there is such a nostalgia for 1970s New York, from both New Yorkers who lived through the distress and those who remember it from afar. However, if you weren’t wealthy, I think life in the Big Apple would have been more stressful than colourful.

    • The author was not born until 1978, so all of that is the product of research, rather than memory for him.

      Another interesting point of reference for New York at that time is Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids.

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