City On Fire arrives with more than just the physical heft of its 900-plus pages. Expectations for Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut, which sold for nearly $2 million in a publishing-house bidding war and had its film rights swiftly snapped up by producer Scott Rudin, hang heavy too. Can his writing—and your wrists—bear the weight? In a very subjective word, yes. (Though some copies will undoubtedly be left to languish in the same nightstand stacks where uncracked paperbacks of Cloud Atlas and Infinite Jest live out their lonely days.) Hallberg’s ambition is as sweeping as his scope, and City isn’t without its share of literary tricks, some more successful than others. But the story itself engages from the first page, plunging readers into the barely contained chaos of 1970s New York—a city that is, literally and figuratively, on fire. While the Bronx burns, two teenagers from Long Island baptize themselves in the East Village underworld of punk clubs and anarchist squats, an uptown marriage falls apart, a scion of privilege spirals further into drug addiction, a young black man wrestles with his sexuality and Southern heritage, and a washed-up journalist chases a lead he thinks might save him.
There’s almost no cultural hot button the plotlines don’t push: race, class, sex, crime, corporate espionage. And the web of conspiracies and strange coincidences that tie nearly every thread together comes with a cast of secondary characters so vast that some readers may need to keep their own CliffsNotes. How will the lonely middle-aged dad forging fireworks in a suburban shed connect with the amphetamine-fueled nihilist plotting a revolution in his Alphabet City crash pad? Can a polio-hobbled detective figure out how a pretty NYU student came to be found bleeding and unconscious in the shadow of one of Manhattan’s most exclusive buildings before the wrong people beat him to it?
Some of those questions don’t have satisfying answers, and there are other flaws: Hallberg’s use of mixed media doesn’t always serve the story, and his fondness for arcane words (horripilating, ratiocination, florilegia) can stop otherwise beautiful sentences short. The book’s length could almost certainly have been trimmed without losing its essence. Those seem like minor complaints, though, in the face of such a singular achievement: a novel as rich and maddening and unforgettable as the city it illuminates.