What Critics Are Saying about City On Fire

The reviews of City on Fire are in, and if nothing else, the coverage is extensive. The book has gained a lot of attention in the press, promoted as Garth Risk Hallberg’s first novel (although he has published a mixed media novella of photographs and prose earlier), and with reports of the book’s length and the price tag of $2 million for the manuscript, it seems Knopf has indeed taken quite the risk with Hallberg, pun intended.

As many may have suspected, Hallberg’s 900 plus pages novel about New York in the seventies is, indeed, very long. Christan Lorentzen for Vulture lets us know how he feels about the novel right there in the title, naming his essay “City on Fire is Trying to Have it Too Many Ways.” Louis Menand agrees up front in his review for the New Yorker: “Yes, as you might suspect, or fear, Garth Risk Hallberg’s new, much promoted, nine-hundred-and-forty-four-page novel, City on Fire (Knopf), is about four hundred pages too long.”

Michiko Kakutani attempts to get at the reason for this excessive prose, saying in her review for the New York Times: City on Fire can occasionally feel overmarinated in research (the author having seemingly inhaled whole books like Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, Will Hermes’s terrific portrait of the New York music scene in the mid-70s), and the reader can’t help feeling that a few judicious nips and tucks might have dispersed the longueurs that waft around the third quarter of the book.”

In Kirkus’ review, the length of City on Fire is described as ambitious: “That’s not to say he’s written a pastiche, but as his various plotlines braid tighter during the July 1977 blackout, his novel becomes an ambitious showpiece for just how much the novel can contain without busting apart. The very-damn-good American novel.”

This brings me to the other thing that most reviewers seem to agree on, which is that despite it’s many, many pages, City on Fire is a very enjoyable book. Menand explains that although Hallberg tried to “squeeze too much juice out of the apple” his gift for writing makes the pages go by pleasurably. Kakutani chimes in, kicking off her review with high praise for Hallberg’s ability to write about the New York of the seventies: “Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire is a big, stunning first novel and an amazing virtual reality machine, whisking us back to New York City in the 1970s, that gritty, graffitied era when the city tottered on the brink of bankruptcy, when the Bronx was burning and Central Park was a shabby hunting ground for muggers, and the Son of Sam was roaming the streets. Punk rock was being born downtown and starving artists could still rent garrets in Midtown. Vinyl was the music delivery system of choice, writers still wrote on typewriters, researchers relied on microfilm, and no one anyone knew had a cellphone.”

It is especially this ability to conjure up the seventies so well that seems to have impressed reviewers, and it is indeed impressive, when you learn that Hallberg grew up in North Carolina and got his college degree in Missouri, only moving to New York later in his life to obtain his MFA from NYU. His ability to paint this picture so well, Menand explains, is due to his studying of books such as Ken Auletta’s classic The Streets Were Paved with Gold, published in 1979, and Jonathan Mahler’s more recent Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning.

Also worth mentioning is the apparent love Hallberg has for his characters, as Ron Charles says for the Washington Post: “City on Fire is a novel that never met a character it didn’t like.” Menand explains that Hallberg’s sincerity is what aligns him with Dickens, and not with the satirical Tom Wolfe, as he warns some might suggest (and indeed, some do): “City on Fire is not remotely satirical. The good guys are truly good, or, at least, they have honorable intentions and suffer remorse when they fall short. The few characters who are without a conscience had tough childhoods. The system is not to blame, it seems, nor is human folly. It’s just that some people manage to transcend their family mess (every family in the novel is some sort of mess), and some can’t, in which case they might deal with their pain by doing bad things, like burning down the South Bronx.”

The question remains then, if this novel, (quite literally) full of likable characters, will find readers that like it back, or if readers, like Christian Lorentzen, will find themselves “not sold”. I’ll let him have the last quote here, with the following words:

I’m curious to see if the reading public proves the enthusiasts right in their bet that this is the big novel — in its overflowing nostalgia, period-piece fetishization, and sheer physical bulk — everyone wants to read right now. As a book editor who read City on Fire on submission told me, “Christian, most people are more sentimental than you.”

Just how sentimental the reading public is, remains to be seen. You can check out more reviews at Bookforum, Booklist, GQ and Library Journal.

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