Book of the Week

City On Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg. Photo: PA Photo/Jonathan Cape
City On Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg. Photo: PA Photo/Jonathan Cape

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

Lugging this 927-page tome around on my daily commute for more than a month has given me a love-hate relationship with debut novelist Garth Risk Hallberg (and made me seriously reconsider my feelings towards e-readers). In places, his writing is such beautifully wrought poetry, it makes you happy to be alive - but it loses pacing halfway through, in Book III, when substance gives way to style.

The premise is this: New Year’s Eve in New York, 1976, with a disparate cast of characters making their way to whatever the night holds. For one, female student Sam, that’s being shot in Central Park, which sets in chain an incredibly slow-moving whodunnit, linking our ensemble cast together. Most sympathetic of these is Mercer Goodman, a young black teacher, who’s living with his drug addict/artist/musician lover William Hamilton-Sweeney, who’s estranged from his family and their shady real estate empire.

One-time lead singer of a punk band, whose song gives its name to the title, Billy Three-Sticks (William) has been supplanted by Nicky Chaos, who has anarchy in his heart and arson in his blood. And then there’s teenager Charlie, Sam’s friend, who was meant to meet her before midnight and gets himself caught up in Nicky’s crowd; journalist Richard Groskoph, who’s profiling Sam’s dad, one of New York’s ‘fireworkers’, whose art is suffering thanks to the automation of fireworks - and hobbling New York detective Larry Pulaski, who’s slowly joining the dots to find who attacked Sam.

Shot through with allusions to fire and explosions, and jumping constantly between characters and time frames, City On Fire is a remarkable, if flawed, feat, an instantly engaging read which beams a flashlight on the gritty underbelly of New York - and the sacrifices made at the altar of a city’s economic progress.

Review by Kate Whiting