City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

Garth Risk Hallberg's first full novel, City on Fire, has been compared to Don DeLillo's masterpiece, Underworld

Book Review by James Troeltsch | 06 Oct 2015
  • City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg
Book title: City on Fire
Author: Garth Risk Hallberg

Hard to ignore the hype surrounding this almost-debut (Hallberg published a novella in 2007), but try, because anything tipped as the next Underworld will struggle to meet expectations.

Taken on its own terms, though, it’s an outstanding novel. Over 900-plus pages, Hallberg tries to pin down the writhing beast of 70s New York, anatomising the dying city through POV characters of practically every social type. There are too many to list, but they include Long Island kids desperate to swap suburban ennui for the Lower East Side, dropout drug-addled anarchists bent on chaos and warring members of one of those Illuminati-grade old-money NY families.

He pretty much pulls it off, too. It's a little more Richard Price than DeLillo, but we’re talking roughly a dozen POVs, and every single one handled with preternatural smoothness, plus a kind of Salingerian compassion, even love, that’s now all too rare in ambitious literary fiction. Same goes for the back-and-forth momentum-sustaining architecture of the book, which is just as dazzling. The form’s so dazzling, in fact, that it can distract from the book’s fundamental problem: centrelessness. Hallberg is so restless, jumping between so many characters and plotlines, that you seldom feel the sense of vicarious consciousness, of inhabiting another sensibility, afforded by the truly great novels. Less width, more depth, in other words. Still, what an accomplishment.

Out 22 Oct, published by Vintage, RRP £18.99