In the late 60’s I was far from New York living in a provincial New England town. The heavy metal and progressive rock radio sounds told stories of other places, protests, punks, drugs, hallucinations and Abbey Hoffman crying out against anything establishment though his wife and baby slept nearby.
In the early 70s I came to the City On Fire , the place of Garth Rick Hallberg’s novel of the same name. I first saw New York through the window of the Harlem Division’s 7:05 crawling to Grand Central from “Pleasantville” along decaying tracks through the burned out Bronx and then along the elevated looking down on the devastated and abandoned Harlem before the train dipped below the surface at 96th Street.
Hallberg misses no evil from the excesses of the wealthy to the drug infested world of those protesting the establishment through a foggy lens of Heroin , Quaaludes and booze. He mixes the Straight and Gay personages of New York City from east to west from Hell’s Kitchen to the Village like an expert bartender or drug dealer with an unlimited supply of mind warping ingredients.
Hallberg stacks metaphor upon metaphor in these 903 pages which often become as heavy as the book itself. I was in Hallberg’s City of Fire the 1970s. Was it that bad, that wild, that dangerous? I didn’t think so but perhaps I didn’t have as good an eye, ear or writers palate as Hallberg. Perhaps my train was moving too quickly to see what the author imagined so vividly. His vocabulary mirrors a thesaurus and the average reader may desire a dictionary at arms reach. The dust cover suggests the novel is about “What people need from each other, and what makes the living worth doing in the first place.” Sorry, I missed that station stop.
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg.