Review: City on Fire

I don’t really know what to say about Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire except that it’s massive and ridiculous and I loved it.

It’s the book that achieved the highest advance ever for a debut novel: Alfred A. Knopf paid $2m for it in what must have been a publicity stunt (clearly one that worked, at least on me!).

Because there’s nothing unusual or innovative about City on Fire. I got into the habit of describing it as “Dickens except in the 1970s”: it’s almost a thousand pages long and features a sprawling cast of characters intersect meet in unlikely ways. And everything turns out basically OK in the end. For most people. If you don’t look too closely.

Set in 1970s New York, it’s centred on the fabulously rich Hamilton-Sweeney family and two of its scions – disaffected prodigal son William, living in an artist’s garret, and not-yet-divorced Regan. Along the way it takes in William’s actually-impoverished Black lover Mercer, a group of punk kids that’s slowly but surely becoming a cult, a disabled detective, a firework-maker slowly going out of business and a Carker-esque banker.

“Generous” is the word that comes to mind: City on Fire is a generous novel. It has space for everyone and everything in its expansive heart: from the mundane (hangovers, teenage angst) to the dramatic (looting, missing explosives); from the very richest to those who have nothing; it takes everyone’s concerns seriously and it recognises everyone’s humanity.

It’s several hundred pages too long, its climax alone takes about 100 exhausting pages, I don’t have a clue what it’s about, but I loved inhabiting it. I love long books, and City on Fire is no exception.

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