I was psyched when I heard that a novel about New York City in the punk rock 1970s by Garth Risk Hallberg was expected to be one of the blockbusters of 2015, and that the unproven young author had been awarded an astonishing two million dollar advance for this book. I've been aware of Hallberg's bright talent since he first showed up in the literary blogosphere nearly ten years ago (mainly at The Millions, that influential website where I also first read the smart writings of Station Eleven novelist Emily St. John Mandel). I've met him several times — he's gracious and very well-read, and makes a strong first impression — and I reviewed his modest but likable first work of fiction in 2007.
Much of the hype about City on Fire is about the fact that a major publisher took a $2 million risk on a novel that runs over 900 pages, indicating a robust literary ambition that might recall Charles Dickens or David Foster Wallace. Its characters encompass the large scope of an entire city: rich and poor, young and old, money and art, good and evil. The book contains embedded scraps and inserts, such as the actual simulated pages of a 70s punk zine, ostensibly by one of the teenage characters.
The zine editor is a lovetorn and attitude-heavy New York University student named Samantha Cicciaro, who hangs out with an equally lovetorn and shy Long Island high school student named Charlie Weisbarger. These two friends follow a punk band called Ex-Nihilo whose grimy members include a hotheaded anarchist named Nicky Chaos and a complex, creatively frustrated leader named Billy Three-Sticks who provides the connection to the other half of the book's axis: an extremely wealthy family, the uptown Hamilton-Sweeneys, and an earnest gay schoolteacher named Mercer Goodman who exits a Hamilton-Sweeney New Years Eve party to walk through Central Park and discovers the nearly dead body of Samantha, the NYU zinester, in the snow. Much of City on Fire involves the mystery of who just shot and nearly killed Sam.
But this mystery somehow lacks heat, and this is one of several ways in which this novel stumbles. The moment in which Mercer Goodman finds Samantha's body in the snow comes off with a dulled effect, and the big question "who shot her?" barely generates any excitement at all. A good mystery should be a "can't put it down", but I put City on Fire down several times (and read a couple of books in between) before making my way to the conclusion. At times it seems possible that the erudite Garth Risk Hallberg is maintaining a chilled tone and avoiding obvious and compelling heart-tugging plot devices to challenge himself as a writer, to be postmodern and unconventional. At other times it seems that suspense and memorable characterization are simply not among his special gifts, though intelligent observation and likable accessibility are. (His charming but unpropulsive first book confirms this.)
It's this likability that led me to persevere with this book even though the plot never catches fire. It doesn't help that most of the characters walk around New York City in perennial states of muddled indecision. There is not much passionate conflict or exquisite agony among this cast, which includes a conventionally anxious newly divorced woman, a cliched police detective right out of an episode of "Barney Miller", and a formidable wealthy patriarch with an obviously villainous sidekick. The character who blazes with the most intense emotion is Sam Cacciaro, who perhaps could have carried the novel's plot on her own — but she spends the book in a coma on a hospital bed while her less interesting friends carry on!
What went wrong here? What is it that renders this promising novel as starchy as an unripe banana? There is a lack of vividity among the individual characters, and the unmagnetic names chosen by the novelist fail to help us differentiate. Which one was Mercer, which one was Keith, which one was Amory, which one was William? It's impossible to explain the magic that occurs when a novelist comes up with the perfect names to spark characters to life, but I noticed when I recently reread the great White Noise how much I admired Don Delillo's talent for character names that jump off the page. Jack Gladney, his wife Babette, their children Steffie and Denise and Heinrich and Wilder; somehow these names are genius. The character names in City on Fire simply fail to stick in the reader's brain, and this helps to doom the attempt at novelistic suspense.
This novel does much better with setting and with history than it does with suspense and mystery. Reading City on Fire felt extremely odd to me because Garth Risk Hallberg is a 36-year-old from North Carolina, and is thus writing about Long Island 1970s suburbia and Manhattan's classic-era punk rock scene from the vantage point of a historical novelist. But I lived through (and totally enjoyed) the actual NYC punk scene during the exact time period described in this book. This is the first time in my life I have ever read a historical novel about an era that I know better than the novelist.
On this front, I am happy to report that Hallberg has done a very good job. He gets it: the intellectual and affected Greenwich Village club scene, which fed on pop art and hobo chic ... the excitement of picking up each week's new copy of the Village Voice to see who was playing at CBGB and Max's next ... the immense primal importance of the Long Island Railroad to any clued-in high school kid with the good sense to head for the city at every possible chance instead of hanging around Smith Haven or Walt Whitman Mall.
Hallberg's level of accuracy about the 1970s is surprisingly strong. I only noticed two mistakes, and one of the two (the use of the term "wintry mix" in weather reports, which those of us who lived through the 1970s know was not in currency at the time) was actually caught by another reviewer. If two reviewers cite the same minor error in a 900-page historical novel, that indicates that these 900 pages contain very few errors. (The other one I noted, which nobody else has caught as far as I know, takes place when Charlie Weisbarger goes excitedly to the now legendary Peter Frampton concert at the Long Island Arena in Commack that eventually gets recorded for part of the great album "Frampton Comes Alive". But it was "Frampton Comes Alive" that made Peter Frampton famous, and there's no way a high school student would have gotten excited to see Peter Frampton in concert before that album came out. Furthermore, Frampton was not the headliner but the opening act for Hot Tuna at that concert, which unfortunately I did not attend.)
I related most to shy Charlie Weisbarger and Sam Cacciaro when they relived my own endless rides back and forth on the Long Island Railroad, a train line that Hallberg nails completely in all its silver glory. It happens that I relate to Charlie and Sam not only because I also frequented CBGB and Max's Kansas City, but also because I edited my own punk-rock zine in the 70s along with my older stepsister Kelly — a coincidence so striking that I sometimes wondered if I were not myself a character in City on Fire.
Just for the fun of it, here's me and Kelly in our Old Bethpage family home in 1978 with newly arrived stacks of our proud publication, Head Express, which was certainly the stylistic precursor to Literary Kicks. City on Fire takes place in 1977, but Kelly and were pretty much exactly the respective ages of Charlie and Sam when this picture was taken.
And here we are going off to distribute these copies in Kelly's AMC Gremlin, after which it's a good bet we jumped on the Long Island Railroad at Hicksville or Mineola to catch Richard Hell and the Voidoids or the Dead Boys or the Mumps at CBGB. (I've mentioned Lance Loud's ill-fated but wonderful Mumps on Litkicks before; they were our favorite CBGBs band, and I still think it's tragic that they never got a record deal.)
(My co-editor Kelly is now a librarian in Tampa, and as for me, I think I still wear that parka. I'll tell you more about Head Express, our awesome zine, someday. I've got some good stories to share, some maybe even more suspenseful than the plot of City on Fire.)
What exactly went wrong with this book? I wonder if the blessing and curse of a two million dollar advance ended up inhibiting Hallberg's natural talents, which are easy to discern in his earlier work as a blogger and a critic. Two million dollars adds up to a lot of pressure from a lot of business-minded editors, and the fact that this book will probably be turned into a cinematic property (it could either be a mini-series or a movie, and suggestions to this effect circulated even before the book was published) may have influenced Hallberg in ways that didn't help the book on paper. The book feels at times like the kind of blank state a good film treatment is supposed to be, because a film treatment leaves empty space for actors and directors to fill. Are the characterizations left bland so that Christian Bale and Rooney Mara and Steve Buscemi and Aaron Paul can bring them to life? If so, that's a dirty trick to play on people who buy the novel.
I wonder if Garth Risk Hallberg might have written a better novel if he'd gotten a $50,000 advance instead of $2,000,000. But he's got a long career ahead, and even though City on Fire didn't knock me out, the author's respectable and intelligent presence on the literary scene still does. I hope his next book will conquer the ambitions that overwhelmed this one.