When New York Erupted

By Alex NorciaJanuary 15, 2016

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

ON MONDAY, April 15, 2013, I woke up from a nap to discover that a bomb had gone off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, four miles from where I had been sleeping in Allston. Then, on Friday morning, I learned about the Tsarnaev brothers’ flight through Cambridge. While Dzhokar remained on the loose, Governor Deval Patrick asked residents of Boston and the surrounding areas to “shelter in place.” From dawn until dusk, I stayed indoors. Ever since then, I’ve experienced a perhaps questionable impulse to structure those events around my own existence, around my own failures. There was nothing more foreboding, I thought, than a fleet of SWAT trucks barreling the wrong way up Harvard Avenue.

There’s a scene in City on Fire when Will, a middle-aged man, discusses his childhood with a therapist. He remembers the New York City blackout of 1977 and how that evening, his 12-year-old self was left alone on the streets of Manhattan with his little sister Cate. Their father had failed to pick them up from school.

Like I had done with the Boston bombing, Will recalls those hours of fear and disorder and confusion by evaluating his place within them. He forgets about the outside forces that plunged the city, during that July night, into darkness and chaos. He doesn’t explain the looting that occurred as a product of the political strife and economic hardship in a financially ailing New York. He neglects to mention the harsh austerity measures, high unemployment, and widespread poverty that slowly stirred a sense of abandonment, especially in the poorer neighborhoods, and eventually led to rioting. For him, that night is just a vivid memory of feeling deserted by his dad.

In City on Fire, the blackout serves as the moment when Hallberg’s large cast of characters comes together — when, amid the mayhem, they all finally admit a truth they had formerly refused to acknowledge about themselves. Here, the timeline slows down to a single day — to a section that’s manically broken-up by the hour and minute, and not, as the rest of the novel, by a sprawling and sometimes confusing range of more than two decades. Here, as Will explains, New York erupted, the period of long dilapidation having finally reached a boiling point: “everything,” he reminiscences, “seemed on the edge of becoming something else.”

Narrated almost entirely in the third-person, with a rotating number of probably too many and somewhat uniformly voiced perspectives, the book is organized into seven parts, alternating between the 1960s and the winter of 1976 to the summer of 1977. The former stretch of time constitutes the recent past, and the latter the narrative present, when, late on New Year’s Eve, Sam Cicciaro is shot in a snowy Central Park. The NYU freshman and her pal, Charlie Weisberger, have traveled into the city from their home on Long Island to see the reunion concert of their favorite punk band, Ex Post Nihilo (formerly Ex Post Facto). Their New York is the New York artists today wish existed — a downtown energized by the tension on the streets, where all seemed lost and all seemed possible. The chords of rock ’n’ roll mixed with the cries of those who believed they were forgotten, and the ’60s “had tipped the entire country on the end and shaken it like a box of cereal until all the flakes ended up in the East Village.” People walked around “mohawked and safety-pinned,” and pigeons flocked to the boarded-up buildings of squatters.

Grieving the death of his father, Charlie frequently raises concerns about the Vault, the rundown Bowery venue where Ex Post Nihilo prepares to perform, but he follows Sam’s lead with the dangerous diligence of someone who’s freshly in love with a friend and freshly in mourning of a parent. He is attracted to the tenets of punk — “to rebel” and “to overturn” — but he is mostly just attracted to his best friend. So as Sam suddenly insists she must go uptown, and Charlie should remain behind, he abides without many questions. Despite his obedience, however, Charlie isn’t pleased about her leaving. He hasn’t talked to Sam in months, not since she left for college, and not since his mother grounded him for returning home drunk long past his curfew. Now, as she lies in a coma in Beth Israel, he probably isn’t going to talk to her again.

The identity of Sam’s shooter stands as a mystery until the book’s conclusion, and it arrives neither as a surprise nor as a satisfaction. It is neither shock nor relief, and for Hallberg, it is less about revealing the guilty party than it is about showing the entangling web of relationships that could have something to do — or will have something to do — with her attempted murder. As to be expected, a committed detective and an eager journalist swiftly become interested: the cop, Larry Pulaski, sits on the brink of retirement, and, ignoring the pressure from his wife to snag his pension and retire upstate, he draws himself further and further into the convoluted intricacies of Sam’s shooting. For his part, the magazine reporter, Richard Groskoph, longs to draft a piece like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (“to disappear so completely into other people’s lives”), much as the reader may expect to do in a novel of this size and breadth.

Also represented are the eccentric one-percenters, William and Regan Hamilton-Sweeney, the estranged brother and sister who are forever protected by a trust fund and the immense profit of their father’s investment firm. They are each divided in their approach to the family business, and though both of them harbor resentment toward their stepmother, Felicia Gould, and their despicable step uncle, Amory (nicknamed the “Demon Brother”), they have their own strategies in coping with their anger. Regan has gone the repressive route, and she leads the company’s public relations department, an increasingly more difficult position, as her father has been charged with a financial crime that the average person, like me, has difficulty even understanding (it’s close to insider trading). Newly separated from her husband Keith, who was having an affair with Sam, Regan lives in Brooklyn Heights with her nearly teenage son, Will, and her six-year-old daughter, Cate. She handles her problems behind closed doors (usually the bathroom door, as she struggles on-and-off with bulimia), and the last disagreement she had with her brother concerned a particularly disgusting form of abuse she endured, as well as an equally disheartening cover-up.

Along with her dad, Regan hasn’t spoken to William since he ran away after high school, and she has little idea what has become of his life. She doesn’t know about his sojourn in Vermont with Bruno Augenblick, an art history professor and Manhattan gallery owner who speaks like a lost creation of Oscar Wilde (he warns his idealistic assistant, Jenny Nguyen, that men would “only be too happy to collect” her). Regan isn’t aware, either, that Augenblick encouraged William to attend a “progressive” art college, or that after his studies, he dodged the draft for the Vietnam War and reemerged in New York. She doesn’t claim to be a fan of the band he formed, fronted, and promptly quit, Ex Post Facto. But here’s the reality: William quickly retired from music to paint in his Bronx studio, where he toils away on what will one day become his magnum opus, Evidence, a three-part conceptual project that attempts to “reimagine” New York and allude to the dreams so often associated with the city (in the most recurring example, William uses an actual stop sign as a canvas). It’ll be hundreds of pages, though, before Hallberg presents the thematic importance of Evidence in City on Fire, and it’ll be decades, too, before William bears any real success with his art. Throughout the ’70s, he never proves very productive, as he primarily busies himself with abusing heroin and trying to conceal his addiction from the man he loves.

Meanwhile, William’s eventual ex-boyfriend Mercer, moved to New York from a small town in Georgia. Fresh out of college, he is the only black teacher at an all-girls private school in the East Village, and he lives with William in a Hell’s Kitchen loft, in a dilapidated building that once manufactured “Knickerbocker-brand breathmints” and currently houses a bunch of Hell’s Angels (Bullet, a Vault bouncer, resides there). Mercer aspires to be a novelist, and his attraction to the city has much to do with “the saviors of his youth” — “Melville and James Baldwin and especially Walt Whitman” — hanging out there. His vision, however, isn’t ever enough to inspire him: while he fantasizes about being interviewed in The Paris Review, he can’t sit still long enough to compose a single sentence on his typewriter. Mercer has nowhere near the commitment of Nicky Chaos, the guitarist of Ex Post Facto who has graduated from philosophizing about modern society (on certain drug cocktails, he can mention Walter Pater, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche in a single breath) to organizing a politically motivated arson campaign with his group of Post-Humanists, S.G., D.T., and Sol Grungy.

With Hallberg’s intricate plotting and large cast, a reader may, at times, assess the plausibility that all these characters come together in the way they do. Isn’t it rather convenient that Jenny Nguyen lives next door to Richard Groskoph? What if I were to say that it’s Mercer, attending a masked, Poe-inspired gala at the Hamilton-Sweeney penthouse in secret from William, who spots Sam in the park on his walk home? Or that Charlie, investigating the truth about what happened to Sam, goes to live in the East Village apartment inhabited by Nicky Chaos and his runaways, drug addicts, and pseudo-intellectual graduate students, and is accepted as a sort of prophet? Or that Sam, before the incident, had stayed at that same flat, slept with Nicky Chaos, and took photographs there for her fanzine? Considering a new break in the case, Larry Pulaski sums up the general experience I had in reading:

Assume it’s accurate, he thought. Assume the Cicciaro girl had these connections to some lefty agitators, fine. But the guy who’d found her body had been a guest of one of the city’s richest families, the very model of the Establishment. Pulaski had never been one for the overwrought plot; any entanglement he could imagine between these two lines of evidence was willful to the point of insanity.

Pulaski’s difficulty in putting together all of the loose pieces of this “overwrought plot” will lead him, he assumes, to go crazy, and like me, constantly flipping back and forth to see if I glanced over anything important (Did Regan and Charlie have the same therapist?), he can’t decide if he should continue searching for clues:

All these threads, like the ley-lines he’d read about in his Time-Life history books, converging on the Cicciaro girl, who lay there unaware, a glass-coffined beauty whose kingdom was in ruins. But of course, this was true of everybody; who didn’t exist at the convergence of a thousand thousand stories? At the center of forces, circuits, relays Pulaski could sit like this all evening and not be able to make connect. Which meant the shooting was meaningless. A chance encounter. Just one of those things. And he had promised (hadn’t he?) to do his best to get free of it.

Eventually an identifiable paranoia rises to the surface, and although Pulaski wavers between accepting Sam’s fate as the product of a random act or a conspiratorial crime, he isn’t the only person who grows anxious. City on Fire is filled with people who are incessantly looking over their shoulders, even the ones who aren’t on drugs. On the street, following a date with her husband, Regan “could make out, in addition to Keith’s head and her own, the top of the shadow of the person following them.” In the middle of a different night, opening her eyes, she wonders what aroused her: “It wasn’t the clock, since she hadn’t set the alarm, and it wasn’t the TV, since that was on already. No, it was the sense of being watched.” In Georgia, burying his brother’s gun in the backyard, Mercer feels, “as he had on New Year’s Eve” standing over Sam’s body, “that someone was in the trees, watching.” “Dr.” Zigler, a radio personality who calls for protests, confesses on the airwaves that “you can talk yourself into being too scared to turn around,” and “paranoia,” admittedly, is his “late style: How else but through networks and conspiracies could he fashion a target big enough for his outrage.” Sol “locked doors and covered windows and banished outsiders.” Late and “on lonely streets,” William has “the sensation of being followed.” At some time or another, everyone seems to be on edge.

On the surface, the reason for the underlying panic is simple enough. The year or so around the blackout, 1976-1977, was a notable period of hysteria; as the city government fought to keep New York out of bankruptcy, David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam,” continued his string of serial killings, gaining national notoriety and sensationalist attention (famously and controversially, Spike Lee captured the season in his 1999 film, Summer of Sam). It probably isn’t a coincidence that Hallberg chose Sam as his victim, as Berkowitz’s main targets were young women, particularly those who had boyfriends (Sam’s pursued by almost every male character). However, Hallberg doesn’t offer much historical context (I counted a lone reference to Berkowitz), and although there are a couple of mentions of Richard Nixon, Andy Warhol, and Patti Smith, they don’t serve any more of a purpose than an infrequent exit sign on a highway: the allusions are cultural markers planted in the prose, and when I spotted them, I had long been waiting for them to materialize, as if I had been waiting at a zoo with empty cages. Initially, I was disappointed at the lack of real-life figures walking down the sidewalks, and it wasn’t until I completed City on Fire that I admitted to myself I had been hoping to bump into celebrities in my imagination.

What Hallberg achieves, most impressively, is to capture New York in the late ’70s without succumbing to sentimental longing, and without relying too heavily on his predecessors, who are legion. After all, the relationship between paranoia and postmodernist literature isn’t a new idea (look no further than Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon), and the setting of New York has and will always be a writerly one: see Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, or Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., or Joan Didion’s “Goodbye To All That” (or the two recent collections, Goodbye to All That, and Never Can Say Goodbye, inspired by Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That”). To say nothing about typing 900 pages on the topic, talking about New York can sometimes be like talking to your grandmother: you love her, but you eventually realize she only has four stories left to tell.

Hallberg published an experimental novella, A Field Guide to the North American Family, in 2007, but City is his first novel. In interviews, he often shares the same sappy epiphany that allegedly spawned the book — a train veering through the New Jersey swampland, the view of the altered Manhattan skyline following 9/11, a Billy Joel song about the blackout. Perhaps I’m overly cynical, but the anecdote he delivered at the BEA Librarians’ Breakfast struck me as too neat to be anything other than a marketing tool. Usually, I follow the advice of The New Yorker’s film critic Anthony Lane and avoid the publicity material, but with City on Fire, I relented. I was much too curious about the strategy, as Hallberg’s lengthy debut sold to Knopf at auction for nearly two million dollars (a month before, Scott Rudin bought the film rights). The galley I received opened with Knopf and Vintage editors offering their praise and support; on the back cover, independent booksellers did the same. One of the flaps listed the advertising plans — major online and print campaigns, an author tour, and transit advertising in New York City. As reported by Publishers Weekly, 6,500 advanced reading copies were printed (that’s more than a small press author can likely ever sell).

With City on Fire being so loaded with expectation and the author’s alleged ambition (always a subtle way of saying nice try), it hasn’t surprised me to see critics so divided. Aside from the general consensus that it’s too long (The New Yorker’s Louis Menand would cut 400 pages), the critiques have tended to fall into two camps: one which argues that Hallberg has, according to Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times, evoked ’70s New York “with bravura swagger and style and heart”; the other which insists that, in the words of New York Magazine’s Christian Lorentzen, the novel falters in its “Disneyland logic.” The most compelling response, however, appears in Flavorwire, in which the site’s literary editor, Jonathon Sturgeon, theorizes that “Hallberg’s novel — alongside an increasing number of novels pitched as ‘ambitious’ by contemporary publishing — is governed by two irrepressible logics of the present: austerity and television.” Sturgeon’s essay is much more complex and eloquent than I’m about to make it sound, but it’s enough to say that what he and others object to is the checklist-like quality of City on Fire (better have the work-obsessed detective and the troubled reporter). I don’t pretend Hallberg doesn’t attach clichéd traits to some of his characters, just as I don’t pretend his omission of somebody truly affected by the turmoil doesn’t affect the general framework: it is indeed difficult to fully comprehend the turmoil if we don’t, say, follow a boy or girl from the Bronx, thrust onto the streets after cuts to public funding have closed down many of the libraries.

However, what Sturgeon hints at, most importantly, is the publishing industry’s seemingly endless obsession with the literary celebrity, a habit that puts so much attention on the writer the discussion becomes centered, either directly or implicitly, on whether or not he or she deserves said attention. For how else could everyone have missed that Hallberg’s representation of the “real” New York is but a possible one, a fiction within a fiction. Like William Hamilton-Sweeney, Hallberg is a conceptual artist — a careful and calculated manipulator. The documents he inserts throughout the books as “interludes” (Sam’s punk fanzine, Richard’s unedited magazine feature, a letter to William from his father) separate the various sections and suggest hints as to who, ultimately, has put the text together: it’s a sort of meta-mystery that gradually becomes clear.

When Hallberg was more active as a contributing editor at The Millions (he hasn’t been published on the site since 2014), he wrote extensively on the great Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño — a critique of the myth surrounding him, a defense on why he matters, and a comprehensive syllabus of his canon — and this May, he told Publishers Weekly that “some of [City on Fire’s] structural stuff […] precipitated out of reading” 2666. So with his clear admiration in mind, I’m going to borrow the term “vanishing point” from the Spanish literary critic Ignacio Echevarría, who used it to define the never mentioned date of “2666,” the title of Bolaño’s modern masterpiece: “Without this vanishing point,” he writes in an afterword for the novel’s first edition, “the perspective of the whole world would be lopsided, incomplete, suspended in nothingness.” Inside Bolaño’s “physical center” of Santa Teresa, the fictional Juarez-like city near the US and Mexican border where thousands of women have been brutally murdered, Echevarría identifies the “2666” as the “hidden center” — the mysterious number that many scholars have suggested signifies the apocalypse. Bolaño’s characters — among them, romantic critics, a philosophy professor, an American journalist, and an elusive European novelist — all find themselves drawn to Santa Teresa, as a place paradoxically filled with promise and utter desperation. Noting Hallberg’s “physical” center as New York, and his “hidden center” as the blackout, registers to me as a useful comparison to make.

The structure of City on Fire is slowly realized, but it’s clear, even as early as the seductive first-person prologue, that this story has been recorded — and compiled — in the 2000s:

And you out there: Aren’t you somehow right here with me? I mean, who doesn’t still dream of a world other than this one? 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?

“The million once-possible New Yorks,” “a thousand thousand stories”: City on Fire exists across decades (the ’60s, the ’70s, the 2000s), but it also exists across a plane of realities, on a wheel suspended in timelessness that lends it both an optimism and a pessimism. It doesn’t matter who put a bullet in Sam’s head, because it could have been anybody who pulled the trigger. In the end, it’s the “vanishing point” of the blackout — the metaphorical edge over a shifting abyss — that gives the novel the wonderful cohesiveness that holds it together: at last, people must face different versions of the “self” — who they’ve been, who they are, and who they might be. Sam’s shooting is merely an introduction, a set-up; the blackout is the conclusion, the personal confrontation — the day a fleet of SWAT trucks comes racing into view.


Alex Norcia lives in Brooklyn, and his writing has appeared in VICESalonThe MillionsElectric LiteratureThe RumpusSlantWord RiotEclectica, and elsewhere. His day job is at night: he works in the evening as a News Assistant on the International desk at The New York Times.

LARB Contributor

Alex Norcia lives in Brooklyn, and his writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The MillionsElectric LiteratureThe RumpusSlantWord Riot, Eclectica, and elsewhere. His day job is at night: he works in the evening as a News Assistant on the International desk at The New York Times.


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