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'City on Fire': Doorstop, or the next big thing?

It’s the most hotly anticipated novel in years. But now that it’s finally in readers’ hands, is City on Fire—Garth Risk Hallberg’s epic 944-page tale of 1970s New York—living up to its enormous advance buzz?

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Mark Vessey

Garth Risk Hallberg‘s story is already the stuff of publishing legend: A debut novelist toils for seven years on his book while juggling three teaching jobs and caring for his two kids—and then, in short order, producer Scott Rudin snaps up the movie rights and Alfred A. Knopf wins the rights to publish for nearly $2 million.

That’s an unheard-of figure for a first-time novelist, especially one who admits he wasn’t even writing the book for publication at first. “I just put that question out of my mind,” Hallberg says. “It wasn’t like a bunch of people were running around in 2007 like, ‘Bring me your 900-page manuscript!'” In fact, he points out, the topic on everyone’s lips was the shortening of the American attention span. And bookstores, gutted by Amazon, were closing left and right.

But in late 2012 Hallberg met Chris Parris-Lamb, who would become his literary agent—and the book’s first champion. “I immediately knew he was as good as any writer I’d ever seen,” says Parris-Lamb, who held a feverish two-day auction in October 2013 for the book. Knopf editor Diana Miller, who outbid nine other publishers, says that while the experience was nerve-racking, “it was also really nice to imagine all these editors across New York sitting up late into the night turning these pages. It felt like the whole city was starting to get excited.”

Fervor may have been high in the publishing world, but to earn back that heady advance, Knopf needed to spark real-world excitement. So, earlier this year the company began heavily promoting City on Fire to booksellers, planned an 18-city tour for Hallberg, released a trailer with an original song by the Walkmen, and orchestrated profiles of Hallberg in Vogue and New York magazine that ran shortly before the novel’s Oct. 13 release.

Though early reviews were mixed (“He tried to squeeze too much juice out of the apple,” wrote The New Yorker), many of them were raves: The New York Times called City on Fire “a novel of head-snapping ambition and heart-stopping power.” Despite getting off to a slow start — first-week sales were a lackluster 11,000 — it nonetheless debuted at No. 5 on the Times‘ best-seller list, though week 2 saw it slipping to No. 13.

For a book widely touted as the hottest title of fall, these numbers aren’t great, but Rick Simonson of Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company cautions that “how fast something sells out of the chute” isn’t important. The novel’s success might be more of a slow burn as people continue to talk about it, he says. Julie Wernersbach of BookPeople in Austin also believes that sales for novels like Hallberg’s build slowly through word-of-mouth recommendations. “But before people can begin recommending City on Fire,” she points out, “they have to get all the way through it.”

This story originally appeared in the Nov. 13 issue of Entertainment Weekly. Pick it up on stands or subscribe online at ew.com/allaccess.