I first heard about City on Fire when I read an article in New York Magazine about how author Garth Risk Hallberg’s 900-page first novel drew in $2 million after a bidding war. Because my book club is filled with nerds who are often up-to-date on the books people are talking about, we casually discovered that many of us planned on reading it, so we made it our November-December choice, choosing to reconvene after the holidays. All the travel and free time proved to be the best opportunity to get lost in a book even I deemed to heavy to tote with me on the subway (for better or worse, I am the girl who buys purses and bags only if they are big enough to carry a book as well).
The story is entrenched in a murder mystery, which proves at points to be a motivating factor in keeping at it. There are dozens of characters who are living slightly interconnected lives in New York City in the height of the 70s, with the climax of the story occurring during the infamous blackout in the summer of 1977. And though I think all kinds of people will enjoy this book, it is New Yorkers and the lovers of New York who will be fascinated by the history, the scenes that no longer exist (here’s another interesting article from New York Magazine about the 70s), and the spirit that still remains, even if today seems so disconnected from what life here was like then. There are a number of lines that will resonate and cause those readers to feel intimately connected to the sense of place:
“There was nothing New York liked reading about more than itself.”
“The thing was, William had a kind of genius for not noticing what he didn’t want to notice.”
“Who among us—if it means letting go of the insanity, the mystery, the totally useless beauty of the million once-possible New Yorks—is ready even now to give up hope?”
For me, it always comes back to the story of the individual amidst the chaos, no matter the setting: how do people walk through the macro forces at work? The book is called CIty on Fire, and this is both literally and figuratively true. What readers also see here, though, is the individual lives that were on fire as well, and that is what I spent most of my time considering as I read–the sheer number of characters is a lot to keep track of, but they each give a glimpse into the millions of different stories being written against the same setting. There are two teenagers longing to flee from their Long Island existence, a black, gay man hoping to find himself and his art after leaving his hometown in the south, a few characters who grew up wealthy but still wrestled with events from their youth, characters sucked into the money making machines, punk kids squatting in the East Village, power-hungry businessmen. Because the book is so long (and many of these characters become interconnected), a reader is able to get to know the individual fires within each one and watch them mapped out on Manhattan’s grid. And if you were to extend that image beyond the 12 characters or so onto the rest of the people on the island, walking with their own stories, the fire becomes less literal and more something that exudes from everyone, be it embers or near-combustion. Remembering that about people, even four decades later, can change the way I walk around this city.