Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire — a wild plunge into the bleak haze of late-1970s New York — is being touted as the best and biggest debut of the year. The most amazing part is that the guy behind it wasn’t even born until 1978 — and grew up, of all places, on North Carolina’s coastal plains.
Hallberg, already a respected book critic, was raised in Greenville, “a small college town on Playboy‘s top-20 list of best party schools,” he says. “I never really felt at home there.” Hallberg escaped into Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and the cultural “supernova” of Koch-era New York. “I was my town’s resident beatnik at 14,” he says. “That downtown [New York] scene seemed like this fantastical landscape. I loved the idea that all the people who didn’t belong anywhere else ended up in one place.”
The idea behind City on Fire came to Hallberg in 2003, while he was on a Greyhound bus to New York — a pilgrimage he’d been making since age 17. Just as he got his first glimpse of lower Manhattan’s shattered skyline, a Billy Joel song, “Miami 2017,” popped up on his iPod. “I’d never heard it before,” says Hallberg. “I respect Billy Joel, but I’m not a guy who’s gonna sit down and listen to the entire Essential Billy Joel.” The song, released in 1976 but narrated from the future, envisions the destruction of New York over 40 years. For Hallberg, it was as if the past and the present — essentially, 1976 and 9/11 — were collapsing together in that moment. “There’s this imagery of the arsons that were going on in the Seventies, and I was like, ‘This song is about right now.’ I immediately wrote out an entire scene, and after 10 minutes, the essence of the story was there.” Hallberg returned to the idea in 2007, by which time he and his wife had moved to Brooklyn, where they still live with their two young kids.
City on Fire uses a singular crime — the shooting of a teenage girl in Central Park on New Year’s Eve 1976 — to explore the lives of myriad New Yorkers: denizens of Wall Street, estranged high-society siblings, Molotov-cocktail-lobbing anarchists and star-crossed kids living on the periphery of the city’s punk scene. As the investigation into the shooting unfolds, they’re drawn toward one another and into the chaos of the Great Blackout of July 13th, 1977, a perfect darkness from which only some will emerge.
Previously living off $16,000 a year, Hallberg got a record-breaking advance of nearly $2 million for the novel, a book that is truly that great, rare thing: a wholly inhabitable universe, reflecting back our lives while also offering an exhilarating escape from them. “For me,” says Hallberg, “the city was a place to dream and a place to work. I want everyone to experience that freedom.”