“New York City, 1976. Meet Regan and William Hamilton-Sweeney, estranged heirs to one of the city’s great fortunes; Keith and Mercer, the men who, for better or worse, love them; Charlie and Samantha, two suburban teenagers seduced by downtown’s punk scene; an obsessive magazine reporter and his idealistic neighbor—and the detective trying to figure out what any of them have to do with a shooting in Central Park on New Year’s Eve.
The mystery, as it reverberates through families, friendships, and the corridors of power, will open up even the loneliest-seeming corners of the crowded city. And when the blackout of July 13, 1977, plunges this world into darkness, each of these lives will be changed forever.”
Thoughts on the Novel: City on Fire is the type of novel that harkens back to an era in literature where stories took a long time to unfold. With its vast cast of characters and its fluid use of time, it is a novel that requires a reader’s patience. However, for those readers who stick with it, the result is an astounding tour de force.
Much like its setting of New York City, the story itself is a hodge-podge of eclectic parts that come together to create a vibrant whole. The novel explores every facet of city living from the very rich to the disenfranchised to the middle class. Gay, straight, black, white, old, young, conservative, revolutionary, criminal, cop – it is all there with an amazing attention to detail that fills a reader’s senses. Add to that the fact that the story itself is part crime mystery, part coming-of-age, part social commentary, and one quickly understands that there is a little something for everyone and anyone.
One hesitates to use the word Dickensian when describing any modern novel, and yet, for Mr. Hallberg’s debut, the word fits. Not only does Mr. Hallberg capture the most mundane aspects of NYC living in the mid-1970s, but a great deal of his story explores social justice as it pertains to the poor versus the wealthy and a growing population of young adults drawn to the anarchical ideals expressed in the burgeoning punk movement. His characters are seemingly unrelated, which turns out to be patently untrue. Much like Dickens, he weaves every character’s story together so finely that the blending of stories is truly masterful. Lastly, much like Dickens, City on Fire is not the type of novel that one can read in a few sittings, nor is it a plot that moves quickly. However, what it lacks in fast-paced action, it more than makes up for with its detailed descriptions and exquisite character development.
City on Fire is an ambitious novel for any writer. The fact that it is the work of a debut novelist makes it that much more impressive. Many people who pick up Mr. Hallberg’s debut novel will be doing so only to determine whether this weighty tome is worth the $2 million Knopf paid in the 2013 bidding war. The answer to that question, in this reviewer’s opinion, is a resounding yes.