The Short Version: On New Year’s Eve 1977, a young woman is shot in Central Park. How does she connect to a newspaper reporter, a fireworker, a Long Island kid who wants to be punk, some philosophical rebel-punks, and one of the wealthiest families in the city? More importantly, how do all of these people connect – and how do they survive in a city that seems on the edge of total collapse?
The Review: I am baffled that Knopf isn’t releasing this book this summer. For all its flaws – and there are many, which we’ll get to – it pulls off an incredible trick at the beginning: it reminds me why I love New York in the summertime. A weird thing to love, as anyone who has experienced it will tell you, but I can’t help thinking that I do. There’s an energy to the city, when most of the people are gone – there’s an opulence to it, something maybe even a little sexy. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, that’s okay: I never thought I’d be a New Yorker and yet here I am. Maybe you’ll discover it someday, too. Maybe not.
But the one thing that Hallberg reliably pulls off from the first to last page of City on Fire is capturing the magic of New York’s promise. I was a long way from being born in 1977 and the New York of this novel is a far cry from the safer, cleaner, richer one that I’ve burrowed into – but I still recognize the bones of the place. One of the main characters, William, has an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen (back when it really was Hell) and in one scene, he and his boyfriend, a black man from Georgia, end up drinking on the roof with some Hell’s Angels – and that’s the sort of thing that I’m talking about. It’s the man in a cowboy hat down the dark alley not being a murderer but instead a good samaritan to the two lost kids. It’s the band taking a shine to the awkward kid who winds up backstage. That is the promise of New York and I don’t think that promise is ever more apparent than at this time of year.
Hallberg himself represents New York’s promise too. You’re going to be hard-pressed to find a review or an article that doesn’t mention his earth-shattering advance for a debut novel – and, both inside and outside of the literary scene, we’re all attracted to that. It’s not news, not really, but somebody got paid an awfully large sum of money for something that doesn’t ever pull down that kind of cash, so of course we’re going to talk about it. And theorize. And hypothesize. And analyze. And wish that it had been us.
But the unfortunate moment came about halfway through the book, for me, when I realized that the book wouldn’t be worth the hype. I had the sinking feeling early on, when some of Hallberg’s phrases felt just a little too overwrought, a little too constructed and fashioned. His prose is often beautiful, but then a clunker of a sentence appears and you just feel like it was edited (whether by Hallberg, his editor, or some combination) too many times. “Don’t overthink it,” I found myself murmuring.
And perhaps it is that he both does and does not overthink it – an imbalance of thought all around. On the one hand, he overthinks everything: the novel is stuffed with plots and characters and points of view, an attempt to capture the kaleidoscope of the city on the page. But each new character, for the most part, did nothing but add clutter to the picture, another piece with which to spin off new combinations but that ends up being lost in the mix of an already overcrowded lens. This is the other hand: he didn’t think about the overcrowding that would inevitably occur with so many pieces on display. Any one or two or even three of these stories would’ve been enough to float a novel of this length and ambition – the story of the band, the story of William and Mercer, the story of the Hamilton-Sweeneys, the story of the teenager who wants to discover punk, the story of the fireworker, the story of the 1977 blackout, and these are only probably about half of the stories given space in the novel. 944 pages are suddenly nowhere near enough when you think about the scope Hallberg is trying to cram into them.
This is a shame, because there are kernels of great stories throughout the novel. But as Hallberg attempts to bring them all together with the magical serendipity of New York City on the night of one of the most iconic and loaded narrative moments in the city’s history, the novel dissolves into an ungovernable mess. There’s no better way to put it, I’m afraid- and I think it is largely because of the overarching Plot that attempts to bring the individual plots together. I don’t want to go into the details for fear of spoiling things (although I was left confused enough that I don’t think a reader will necessarily be spoiled as they’ll be too busy looking for a spotter’s guide while reading) but suffice it to say that things take a ridiculously melodramatic turn. Human characters take a turn for the two-dimensional and, instead of just watching people’s lives, we suddenly have a Threat to New York that made me just scowl in disgust. It felt cheap and betrayed whatever trust still remained from the early sections of the book. Let’s not even go into the utterly saccharine, cloying epilogue that reveals, in a meta-narrational twist, the reason behind that present-tense prologue and the mixed media chapters that appears between books. The way most people felt about the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I felt about this. Take that as you will; I daresay we’ll all be of the same mind about this one.
But I cannot say that I disliked this book. Much as I felt betrayed by it and ultimately immensely disappointed, I did not dislike it because (as I said earlier) the early going shows so much promise. Hallberg, for all of his overwrought turns of phrase, knows how to paint a picture with prose and it is these little moments that made me see why the hype got started so early. William and Mercer in their apartment at Christmas, Charlie getting into the rock club, the party at the Hamilton-Sweeneys… these early moments suck you in with a glamor nearly unparalleled. And although I was often frustrated by Hallberg’s decision to constantly go back in time (the book ends up spanning about 40 years, if you don’t include the jump to the present), those scenes taken individually were some of the best writing in the whole novel. Regan’s plotlines especially (Regan, the daughter & de-facto scion of the Hamilton-Sweeney family and William’s sister) provided some breathtaking moments, including most notably an act of violence and its repercussions. William, too, discovering himself as a gay man during the early days of the AIDS plague – discovering himself both as a gay man and as a punk/artist, actually. These moments are rendered honestly and beautifully, but Hallberg is too restless. There is always another story he wants to jump to, another point in time. Characters are introduced only to be dispatched or forgotten about. And when the lingering “mystery” of who shot Sam in Central Park on New Year’s Eve begins to creep into the rest of the story, you realize that Hallberg is not a writer who should be so concerned about putting a plot into the novel – because the lives he’s created are plot enough.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5. Let’s be honest, anything less than a 5 feels disappointing. But disappointment is the name of the game with this book: it is, without reservation, a let-down. Hallberg certainly has a gift, creating vivid characters and painting scenes that feel lived-in, but the novel is overstuffed and underbaked. The sentences that feel over-crafted overshadow the ones that feel effortless and the sinking feeling you develop about 100 pages in never quite goes away. The joys of the early going become wearying by the middle and the last 100 pages are rage-inducing. The mixed-media, such fun in novels like Night Film, feels oddly out of place here. And yet, there are moments where the novel captures that nearly-indescribable feeling – that feeling of living in New York City, of the promise that is laid out before you if you can just tap that subconscious energy that swirls throughout the streets.
The book reminds me, more than anything, of summer here. Most of the time, you realize you’d rather be anywhere else – but some afternoons, the sun lights everything up and the heat feels like a bath and anything is possible.
And when the fall comes, you couldn’t be happier that it’s all over.