One Bad Apple

October 10, 2016 § Leave a comment


A trend that I wonder if we will be seeing in literature, if we are not already seeing it, is the pre-Internet nostalgia novel–one that eschews what I have heard referred to as the Romeo & Juliet problem: meaning that, due to the easy availability of communication devices in the modern world, a story that bases its complications on absence and distance, such as Romeo and Juliet, is impossible to portray today. A problem with nostalgia is that memory compromises itself; we remember our reactions to things better than the things themselves. Another is that we tend to project an unjustified romanticism upon the times we weren’t around for. To a child of the eighties, the sixties sounded fun. They were more likely frightening as hell to the people who lived through them.

The climax of Garth Risk Hallberg’s epic, block-thick City of Fire takes place during the heat wave and blackout that paralyzed New York City in the summer of 1977. It is a time that has been remembered elegiacally before in films like Summer of Sam and nonfiction books like Jonathan Mahler’s Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning, later made into a TV-movie for ESPN. To the author of City of Fire, that summer has the added mythos of pre-existing him: Hallberg was born in 1978. One would presume that everything about that era that informs these uncrisp 900 pages was learned by the author secondhand.

Hallberg uses the summer as a backdrop against which he arranges an ensemble cast, the plot only loosely oriented around a shooting in Central Park the previous New Year’s Eve. The altered history, rendered in weaved personal narratives, is more fragmented and microcosmic, and less interesting. The ensemble is brought together precisely because its members ordinarily would have nothing to do with each other. It might be believable that the gay scion of a wealthy banking family takes on an African-American writer and schoolteacher from Georgia as a lover, but is it just as plausible that he would cultivate an alter ego as a member of a fringe punk-rock band in the heyday of the East Village punk scene? And then there’s the dynastic drama of the family patriarch getting remarried to an opportunistic gold-digger, who can install her brother into a position of influence; there’s the daughter of the family handling public relations for the family business while her marriage crumbles; there’s her husband, pursuing an unlikely affair with a zine-producing punk-rock girl, and their son, who in flash-forwards tries to piece together how and when the family seams started to pull apart.

Then there are the satellites of the New York City police detective tasked with investigating the shooting, the zine-producing punk-rock girl who takes the bullet, the suburban teenager who had fallen for her and becomes infatuated with aforesaid punk scene, the fireworks manufacturer who is the father of the victim, the depressed journalist covering the investigation of this one crime; that guy’s neighbor, a Vietnamese-American gallery assistant, and by the end of the book, the blockheaded impression, as Louis Menand points out in The New Yorker, that the life of each person in New York touches that of everyone else, just like in the moralistic tomes of Charles Dickens:

The aim of these novels is not to mimic actual city life, where people tend to be like hamsters in their own cages. It’s to dramatize a hidden interdependence, to show that we are all, each according to our abilities, turning the same big socioeconomic wheel inside the same spatiotemporal cage.

Hallberg writes with a delicate sensitivity, close to the soul of each character, even those not worthy of a soul. This eventually points toward a message: that the disparity of these niches says something about the inevitability of social consequence. New York is a city of many neighborhoods. When a Con Ed grid blows and the city goes dark, everyone—rich and poor, aboveground and below—has to find their way through the same darkness. But the disparate narratives do not invite equivalent levels of investment from the reader.  There’s a minor mystery to be solved–that of who perpetrated the shooting–and an act of terror—the bombing of the eponymous skyscraper of the banking family by a punk personality turned pseudo-anarchist—to be thwarted. But the characters whom we are supposed to follow with rapt attention, due to their potential for catastrophe, are drawn the most uninterestingly, with little to say that isn’t speechified, in scenes that zoom away from the intimacy the more interesting parts of the novel somehow pull off.

In fact, the most personable characters in the book all happen to be aesthetes. I’m not sure this is a coincidence. There are scenes where City on Fire pauses to argue for its own earnestness. The journalist, Richard Groskoph, could easily have written the novel himself. He operates more or less as a lone wolf, hard-bitten and tormented, distanced from his family. offering internal discourses on Truman Capote and New Journalism (“But now, on a magazine salary, Richard could spend an entire morning taking a single sentence apart and putting it back together again … What he wanted above all to get right was the web of relationships a dozen column inches had never been enough to contain … Some of the universes he explored, as the ‘60s gave way to the ‘70s: Negro league baseball, folk rock, TV evangelism, stand-up comedy, stock-car racing”). William Hamilton-Sweeney, the black-sheep scion, plays under the nom de guitar Billy Three-Sticks for a punk band called Ex Post Facto, and later becomes a painter of canvases influenced by the scattered urban landscape. Mercer Goodman, his younger, sensitive lover, is an aspiring novelist. And there is Charlie Weisbarger, the wannabe punk from the suburbs, who finds a home in the scene in the most adolescent and un-punk of ways, by tiptoeing into the swarm and seeking approval:

Charlie gulped down half of the beer, aware that at any minute they could tire of him and ask him to leave, and then he’d no longer be fucking hanging out with Ex Whatever. The drummer, Big Mike, had now wandered in, along with the new organ player, each nodding at Charlie as if they’d been expecting to find him here. The pop-tops of Rheingolds exhaled contentedly, and another cold one found its way into his hand. He wondered where they were coming from: a fridge, a cooler, some inexhaustible aluminum tree sprouting deep in the warren of wonders that was “backstage.”

Listening to them talk about who was in the audience reminded him that this was their first real performance. That gallery fag Bruno was out there, did you see him? And Bullet’s Angels, scary dudes, man, scary dudes. Plus the dissertationists, your Nietzsche Brigade. But has anyone seen Billy? Little bastard is probably too … Hey … All the while, the girl on the sofa, sitting up again, gazed at Charlie. “So you know Sam,” she said. “You never told me that.”

This Sam is not the Son of Sam – that would be too earthy, to true to the headlines in a novel unafraid to refer to headlines (FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD). No, David Berkowitz’s staggering Members Only frame and occulty letters earn barely a mention. In fact, many of the elements of that New York summer that made Mahler’s book an interesting read, like the feud between Reggie Jackson and George Steinbrenner during the Yankees’ pennant chase, or the Democratic mayoral primary pitting Mario Cuomo, Bella Abzug, and eventual winner Ed Koch against incumbent Abe Beame, are non-factors in Hallberg’s book. There’s no Jimmy Breslin, no Village Voice. It’s as if Hallberg went on vacation and only took pictures of his dinner plates.

Sam is Samantha Ciccario, the arty girl with whom Charlie becomes smitten, and with whom Keith Lamplighter, the husband of the Hamilton-Sweeneys’ daughter, Regan, has commenced an affair. She’s also the person who gets shot in Central Park, spending the last two-thirds of the book lying comatose in a hospital bed. One would think , through her urban guard and knowledge of the underground, that she’d have made a worthy tour guide around the mansion. But rather, we get to know her while she sleeps, by way of one of City on Fire‘s many extratextual novelties (the book, at a number of points, resembles a Douglas Coupland novel): an authentic-looking 26-page Xeroxed-and-stapled zine compiled (and mostly written) by Sam and found on the person of the last person to see her before she gets shot, Keith Lamplighter. For an insight into city life, the zine holds a rawer voice than the book. I would have ponied up the quarters for a subscription.

More importantly, the mystery of who shoots Sam, and whether she lives or dies, is not positioned to have any consequence. Nor is the threat of a midtown skyscraper being blown up. Hallberg is more interested in creating a living, sprawling portrait of New York at a time when it got by on its petulance, when the subways were terrifying to ride and the alleys reeked of piss. There are many moments where that atmosphere is conveyed believably, in enjoyable language, but I wish the author had better trusted his ability to select the right image. They say there are eight million stories in the naked city, as Jules Dassin’s 1948 film first tells us (and Breslin repeats at the end of Summer of Sam), and City on Fire tries to tell all of them.


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