CITY ON FIRE
By Garth Risk Hallberg
Reviewed by Graeme Aitken
Even before it was published late last year, this debut novel was attracting major buzz: firstly as its US publisher Knopf paid the author an advance of two million dollars for it, and secondly, due its length of over 900 pages. The investment seemed to have paid off when the notoriously tough New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani gave the book a glowing review. However, other reviewers were less enthralled and many complained that the length of the novel was excessive.
So what’s in it for the gay reader? Well, two of the main characters are a biracial gay couple. Mercer Goodman is from Georgia, a recent arrival in New York, working as a school teacher, and with ambitions to write the great American novel. His boyfriend, William Hamilton-Sweeney, has turned his back on the privilege and fortune of his wealthy family, and dropped out. He achieves cult fame as the singer in a short-lived punk band and dabbles in painting, but his real passions are heroin and anonymous sex. Straitlaced, naïve Mercer cannot compete with the allure of either. But the novel also has about a dozen other main characters. There is an uptown set, revolving around the Hamilton-Sweeney clan, and a downtown set comprised of William’s old band mates and groupies, who are squatting in the East Village, and ruled over by a new leader with destructive, anarchist ambitions. But when one of these groupies, suburban teenager Samantha Cicciaro, is shot in Central Park, on New Year’s Eve, it contributes a whodunit pace and edge to the narrative.
Of course, the risk with having so many main characters is that the reader is going to be less interested or invested in some of them, and impatient to return to the characters they do care about. But to the author’s credit, this isn’t really a problem. The narrative has tremendous pace and the diverse cast of characters draws you in. Even if your interest does pall a little in some of them, the chapters are largely short and you’re quickly onto another character’s point of view. The reader is more likely to be frustrated by ‘the interludes’ – related documents which interrupt the narrative such as Samantha’s zine or a handwritten letter to William from his father. Yet despite the massive advance and the hype, this big New York novel hasn’t broken out or achieved the sales or awards recognition that last year’s other big New York novel (Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life) managed to. It’s a shame as for a debut novel, this Dickensian panoramic portrait of New York City and its citizens at a particular time in its history (1976 to1977, culminating in the blackout of July 13 1977) is fresh, fascinating, and (mostly) utterly engrossing to read.