CITY ON FIRE
By Garth Risk Halberg
Alfred A. Knopf, NY 2015
ISBN # 978-0-385-35377-9
Book Review by Rod Haynes
When Garth Risk Halberg appeared on NPR’s FRESH AIR a few months back, host Terri Gross had high praise for his 900-page opus, CITY ON FIRE, which debuted in 2015. While I do not share Ms. Gross’ level of enthusiasm for this book, CITY ON FIRE still has much going for it. I am glad I own it.
Set in the dark and dangerous streets of New York City in the late 1970s, when I first picked up the book I found myself going back to the beginning three or four times before I finally latched onto its complex, finely-woven plot. There are, in fact, six or eight sub-plots underpinning CITY ON FIRE’s dense storyline. Readers must pay strict attention to the parade of characters appearing in rapid succession in the first 100 pages. As I discovered myself, setting the book aside for any length of time is a bad idea. Most readers will have to return to the beginning to regain their bearings.
Halberg’s protagonists are, for the most part, around 30 years old or younger, but they believably represent the diverse socio-economic mosaic of New York culture and its people. Early on, several things become abundantly clear: for one, the author deservedly writes with great confidence. He has talent. Secondly, even though the author was born ten years after the period he is writing about happened, he has his hand directly on the pulse of a metropolis in dire straits in the late 1970s. We find a deep authenticity within the setting, atmosphere, and people of New York City all of which are commendably portrayed in CITY ON FIRE. Halberg describes Flower Hill, a Nassau County enclave out on Long Island, this way:
By day it counterfeited a down-at-heel urbanity—there was a florist, a bridal parlor,
a not-very-good record shop—but at night, the lit-up storefronts blazed the coordinates
of the town’s real urgencies. Massage. Tattoos. Gun and Pawn. Outside an empty deli, an
animatronic Santa pivoted stiffly in time with ‘Jingle Bells,’ its legs chained to a tree.
Incorporating the sights and sounds and historical themes of Brooklyn into the personality of one of the book’s leading characters, Halberg further takes us inside a character’s mind and her world here:
It always caught her off guard—the swell of sound as she rounded the corner to the great
reception hall, the scores of people. The bolts of green fabric that draped the walls made
her think of a ballgame her father had taken to years ago, before they’d torn down the
Polo Grounds and she’d converted to the Yankees—of the dim, pigeon-infested concourses,
punctuated by squares of bright green beyond which lay summer and human life.
Again, CITY ON FIRE demands your full attention or important connections, subtle references, and relevant context may be missed, which is not always true with books of this size and ambition. Those unfamiliar with the foreboding pall of New York City in 1977 will definitely acquire a deep appreciation of a great city in serious trouble. And for those of us who were there to experience it, CITY ON FIRE is a grim reminder of a time and place and situation that only improved over time. The nadir of the period was reached in July 1977. TIME magazine described that moment this way:
The blackout that hit New York on July 13, 1977 was, to many, a metaphor for the gloom that had already settled on the city. An economic decline, coupled with rising crime rates and the panic- provoking (and paranoia-inducing) Son of Sam murders, had combined to make the late 1970s New York’s
Dark Ages. Then lightning struck, and the city went dark for real. By the time the power came back, 25 hours
later, arsonists had set more than 1,000 fires and looters had ransacked 1,600 stores, per the NY Times.
From 1975 to 1979 I periodically visited my college roommate’s parents who resided in an exclusive section of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. We sometimes rode the graffiti-encrusted subway cars south to quickly move through TIMES SQUARE in the daytime, finding a place riddled with tawdry peep shows, dingy strip clubs, cheap electronic store outlets, and failing Mom and Pop eateries. That riff-raff is now long-gone, supplanted by bright lights, more than a few cops walking their beats, and scores of tourists and locals taking in shops, buying theater tickets, or simply sitting in cafes to people watch. TIMES SQUARE today is completely unrecognizable from what its former shabby self stood for only four decades earlier.
I applaud CITY ON FIRE for its ambition, complexity, and gritty authenticity. One could argue Garth Halberg was too ambitious in taking this sprawling subject on in that his book demands attentive, patient readers wanting to know about a terrible time for one of America’s great cities. To be sure, I am glad I bought the book and I recommend it to anyone who has sufficient time available to read it. It is a sad story told by someone with truly impressive writing skills.