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'City on Fire' review: Garth Risk Hallberg's big, $2m novel reimagines 1970s New York

Garth Risk Hallberg, author of "City on Fire"

Garth Risk Hallberg, author of "City on Fire" (Knopf, Oct. 2015) Credit: Mark Vessey

CITY ON FIRE, by Garth Risk Hallberg. Alfred A. Knopf, 903 pp., $30.

"How was it possible for a book to be as big as life?" asks aspiring writer Mercer Goodman, a character in Garth Risk Hallberg's new novel. Goodman calculates that such a book will take 2.4 million months to complete, or 2,500 lifetimes. Discouraged, he resolves to "set aside his dream-city and the wild ambitions that had led him north."

His creator accepts no such defeat. As a result we have "City on Fire," the biggest book of the year in every way: a debut novel that was optioned for film by Scott Rudin before it sold to publisher Knopf for nearly $2 million, arriving in bookstores at 900-plus pages. It has nine main characters and twice as many secondary ones. The text is divided into seven books, and between them are graphic sections: a fanzine, a stained typescript, a handwritten letter, photographs, etc.

OK, so it's big. It's almost heartbreakingly ambitious, but still quite fun to read.

The subject of this epic is New York City in 1977, which happens to be a year before the author was born. It's about the lifestyles of the rich and poor of that era, and the troubles of the city itself, moving between the squats of punk rockers and the penthouses of the ultra-rich and stopping at many places between; taking the LIRR into the city from Long Island.

The plot is strung between two key events -- the shooting of a teenage girl in Central Park on Christmas Eve 1976 (fictional) and the citywide blackout on July 13, 1977 (real). There is a fair amount of jumping back and forth in time and among characters' perspectives, sometimes confusingly. There are a lot of details to keep track of.

However, most will keep reading, partly because Hallberg's OCD writing style and relentless imagination are entertaining, partly because we really do want to find out who shot Samantha Cicciaro. The answer to that question is revealed late and not in much detail, surprisingly, since just about every other tick of thought or action that occurs in this novel is.

Sentence after sentence is dressed up with flourishes of diction and description, often with word choices that require research. On page 12, a character is abandoned by his boyfriend on Christmas. "But Solitas radix malorum est, Mercer would think later, looking back. . . . There was something eschatological about the weak afternoon light, made weaker by the tree, and the layer of soot that coated the window, and about the chill blown through the crack he'd left open." If you don't have to look up the Latin, you may have to refresh your memory as to how light and chill might be eschatological.

Later, on page 570, one of the characters is cleaning up after a bulimic episode. "And then came the ten seconds in which Regan hated herself more than ever. Time to tear off two squares of toilet paper and wipe down the bowl's rim and the bottom of the sink. To brush teeth with a nerdle of Gleem."

Turns out a nerdle is the amount of toothpaste that fits on a brush, as defined by the American Dental Association.

Hallberg's novel is being compared to masterpieces by Tom Wolfe, Jonathan Franzen, Donna Tartt, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace and more. While he has the ambition and talent to join that list, he's not there yet. This show-offy but endearing behemoth of a novel is not so much a great book but a book that could be remembered as the first effort of a great writer.

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