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Poetic And Expansive, 'City On Fire' Ultimately Falls Short Of Its Reach


This is FRESH AIR. Garth Risk Hallberg has been living every aspiring novelist's dream - a reported $2 million book contract with a major publisher for his debut novel. Hallberg's novel, "City On Fire," started generating serious literary buzz well before it was published last week. Here's what our book critic, Maureen Corrigan has to say about it.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Back in the 1980s, I remember reading a witty review essay about Anita Brookner's slim novels that called them works of anorectic excellence. That phrase came back to me as I was reading and reading Garth Risk Hallberg's 900-plus page debut novel about New York City in the 1970s called "City On Fire." What would the opposite of a novel of anorectic excellence be, I wonder. Corpulent splendor? Bloated brilliance? You get the idea. "City On Fire" is, for the most part, poetic, expansive and ingeniously plotted, but it could have easily dropped 100 or 200 pages without diminishing its reach. We're in a moment where these big, so-called Dickensian novels keep materializing - Donna Tartt's "The Goldfinch," Jonathan Franzen's "Purity," Anthony Doerr's "All The Light We Cannot See," to name but a few, and all of them relative featherweights compared to "City On Fire." It's as though anxieties about the impending death of the book have spurred the novel to assert itself physically, to become bigger and heavier, a cultural product that can't easily be shoved into the dustbin of history. You wouldn't think that an intricately plotted story that relies on coincidence would be the fitting form for capturing New York circa 1976 and '77, when the city was a chaotic mess, racked by drugs and crime, its coffers empty and its infrastructure crumbling. But it's the very dissonance between Hallberg's ornate structure of storytelling and his out-of-control subject that's part of the jarring allure of "City On Fire." In interviews, Hallberg, whose only 36, has talked about his nostalgic affection for the city he never knew, a New York on the skids. The main plot lines here concern the intertwining lives of six characters. Among them, William is an artist and recovering heroin addict, who's also one of the heirs to a grand, old WASP empire. His boyfriend, Mercer, is an African-American teacher, newly arrived from the South and wide-eyed enough to view himself as a Jay Gatsby in the making. Together, they live in Hell's Kitchen. Seemingly worlds removed are Charlie and Samantha, two Long Island teenagers entranced by the promise of punk, a music that Charlie pithily characterizes as anger heated to the boiling point, where it became a sort of joy. Throw in a crusading journalist, a Columbo-like police detective, a vile corporate mastermind, arson and a shooting in Central Park, then bring everything to a climax on the night of July 13, 1977, the night of the second great New York City blackout, and you have a story worthy of, well, almost every other wonderful New York writer referenced throughout these pages. "City On Fire," as its title suggests, owes its most obvious debt to Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire Of The Vanities," which was set a decade later, in the go-go 1980s. But there's a vast catalog of other New York writers, including E. B. White, Alice McDermott, Norman Mailer, J. D. Salinger, Walt Whitman and Teju Cole, who also contribute to Hallberg's complex take on the city in all its various moods. Mercer, the teacher, for instance, enjoys walking in the evening past elegant brownstones north of Washington Square. We're told he liked proximity to the glamour of attainment. Sleepy punk-wannabe Charlie finds himself stranded in the pre-dawn freak show of Penn Station. (Reading)When he did find a patch of floor upstairs in the deserted Amtrak waiting area, the stench of the basement level reached him even there, like hotdog-water mixed with roofing tar and left in an alley to rot.

It's the fresh precision of passages like these - dozens and dozens of them - that make "City On Fire" almost worthy of all the hype around it. The end of this ambitious tale is muzzy and flat, more akin to that Amtrak waiting room than to the soaring skyscraper finale you might hope for. But there's a whole lot of novel here to admire before the massive edifice buckles.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "City On Fire" by Garth Risk Hallberg. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with songwriter and singer Iris DeMent.


IRIS DEMENT: (Singing) Everybody is wondering what and where they all came from. Everybody is worrying about where they're going to go when the whole thing's done. But no one knows for certain, and so it's all the same to me. I think I'll just let the mystery be.

GROSS: That's Iris DeMent singing her song "Let The Mystery Be," which is being used as the theme song on the new season of HBO's "The Leftovers." She'll join us and perform that song as well as a gospel song from her childhood and songs from her new album. And we'll talk about growing up with 13 siblings in a family that sang in church. I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.

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