Ambitious is the word that scholars and critics use to describe books such as City on Fire, a debut novel by Garth Risk Hallberg. Weighing in at over 900 pages, this hefty book includes a varied cast of characters through over a dozen different perspectives. The narrative – primarily centered in 1977 New York – ranges from the year 1960 to 2003 (and infinity) and is interspersed with mixed media interludes. The shooting that sparks off the New Year of 1977 slowly uncoils backward and forward in an amalgamation of whodunit noir and literature. While some scenes seem gratuitous, the overall effect immerses the reader into the characters’ world.
“Family, work, romance, church, municipality, history, happenstance…. He wanted to follow the soul far enough out along these lines of relationship to discover that there was no fixed point where one person ended and another began.”
Rich and poor, young and old, male and female, gay and straight, all of the characters suffer from the same condition: loneliness. Race, adoption, financial status, rape, sexuality, abortion, affairs, anarchy, addiction, greed, deceit, omissions, bulimia, ambition, legal battles, and more complicate the relationships. The gritty glamour of punk rock merges with the gilded glamour of the elite until the lines between the relationships blur together into one. It’s difficult to know anyone. Even a parent, child, or partner has their secrets; yet, everyone also struggles to build and maintain relationships. In the end, each person must ask himself, or herself, what matters most.
Sarah Hutchins is an English Instructor and freelance writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. She earned a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Antioch University and a Bachelors of Arts in English from Portland State University. Her sagging bookshelves suffer from a peculiar fate: for each book read and removed, three or four magically appear in its stead. The books that find a permanent home on these same shelves are typically classics, French literature, philosophical novels and essays, and magic realism.
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