“City on Fire” by Garth Risk Hallberg


This one took some time, yet it worth every one of the 900+ of its pages. It’s monstrous in size, reading and messages. A must read to all.

New York of the late 70s is drifting away in drugs and punk rock, people in pins and rebels of any kind. It is after Nam and the hippies, and youngsters are still confused. The depression has done a lot to that. Most cannot find their place in the world, so they keep looking anywhere they can. Black are still Negros, and the first black president sounds like a big joke. Homos feel free to exist there but not in the rest of the country. Art of any kind, is at its best.

Among all this mess, there is shooting in Central Park, sending a young girl into the hospital in comatose state at new year’s eve of 1977. No one knows what happen, who is the shooter, or what she is doing there alone a few minutes before midnight. This is the center of the book, while the author just not really focus there, but on the lives of all people involved, one way or the other, in the crime itself.

Everyone’s life story is described in detail, attaching all the pieces of the puzzle, one by one, as the plot goes on. The reader acquires details on the girl’s life, her fathers, the boy who is actually in love with her, but is just a friend, his mother’s life, the journalists that writes about her father, the journalists neighbor, the man who found her, his lover, his lover’s family, his lover’s band and their friends and the list just keeps going. Somehow, in this crazy long story, all those people are actually connected to each other in one or many ways.

“budget cuts and crime and unemployment had brutalized the city, and you could feel on the street this sense of soured anarchy, of failed Utopia.”

At the night of the New York City’s blackout the anarchy becomes larger as New Yorkers riot claiming the city to them. There are many different types of people in the riot, contradictory to each other, middle-class and petty criminals and drug addicts and homeless, white and black, men and women, while the common battle cry unites them all. This is the beauty of New York City, one may say.

Garth manages to re-create the city in the reader’s mind, just as it should be in 1977, even though he was born in Louisiana and grew up in North Carolina just after these dark years. The narration transfers the reader to those East Village streets, to the drug clubs and parks, inside the real estate madness and the punk scene. Everything becomes so clear in the mind that could be recalled as memories of an unlived life.

“Apparently, though, fear was merely the mask fascination wore to hide itself from itself.”

The extend of emotions that cover these pages as well as the footage that extends them is remarkable. Every character is structured as a whole, representing every aspect of the city’s life. Among the pages there are pieces of letters, a journalists article to be, the girls zines, making the story more realistic and giving a bigger picture.

It may be difficult to understand at some points, or maybe it got into many unnecessary details at others, but as a whole it is an astonishing writing debut!

City on Fire

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