I finished City on Fire a couple of weeks ago and just couldn’t decide whether I liked it and what I wanted to say about it. The book has its highs and its lows, but overall I have decided it is overly ambitious, tries too hard and is simply too long.
A first novel, City on Fire is a snapshot of New York City in late 1976 and early 1977 (except when it flashes back or forward). In other words, lots of drugs, sex and punk rock. The novel follows so many characters (at least 20–but definitely more) that it is virtually impossible to summarize without writing a second novel. So this is simply a selective synopses.
At the start, we meet an interracial gay couple, Mercer and William. We learn that William comes from a dysfunctional, slightly dangerous, affluent family whose name is all over New York City. Also, William is the lead in a punk rock band, is a budding artist and (shockingly!), is a heroin addict. And lest I forget, William is estranged from his family of privilege. Mercer, on the other hand, comes from the south, is tied to his family, has a responsible job teaching at an all white private girls school and is a teetotaler (or maybe not; everything changes). William and Mercer’s relationship faces many challenges, as you might imagine.
William’s sister, who may be the most sympathetic character in the novel, is facing marital problems while struggling to raise and understand her two children and her secretive past. She is working in the family business and trying to hold it together while her uncle does his best to tear it apart. Her aging father, the leader of the family business, is suffering from dementia while he is being accused of insider trading.
In the meantime, we meet Samantha, whose father’s fireworks business is disintegrating, and Charlie, who is suffering grief over the loss of his adoptive father. Charlie is 17 and madly in love with Sam, who is madly in love with a much older married man. Enter the post humanists, an eccentric group of nonviolent revolutionaries (or something–it’s not really clear), with which Sam and Charlie are deeply enmeshed.
And then Sam gets shot, and throughout most of the novel she is lying in bed in a hospital on life support, and suddenly the novel become a simple who dunnit–or not so simple because nothing in this novel is simple. Somewhere in the midst of all this, someone steals explosives from Sam’s father’s workshop, a journalist becomes obsessed with Sam and her father and the posthumanists decide to resort to violence. They create bombs and start bombing supposedly political sites in an effort to make a statement (any statement, apparently). There’s also a Vietnamese American woman struggling with her identity, a gay, seemingly benevolent, art dealer and a radical disc jockey who uses his radio show to foment revolution. And then comes the great black out.
There’s infidelity, detectives, journalists, issues of ethnicity, political statements, murder, suicide, evil, ambition, power, issues of class, unique interludes and at the end, all I can say, is who cares? If the book were only 300 pages, I might say give it a go. But at an inconsistent 927 pages, it’s too much of a commitment and I say pass. That said, if you disagree, or are simply curious, then you can reserve a copy at http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11154597__SHallberg%2C%20Garth%20Risk.__P0%2C3__Orightresult__X4?lang=eng&suite=gold