Friday, 6 November 2015

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg


published 2015

City on Fire 1City on Fire 4


[Set in New York in the 1970s]

It wasn’t long before Valentine’s Day that one of his p.m. rambles took him downtown - and that he realized the two New Yorks had flipped. Punk had picked all the locks, sluiced out into the grid. Tatterdemalion kids crowded St Mark’s Place, their clothes held together by dental floss and wishful thinking. And from all around, rooftops and stoops and passing cars, came that other adhesive: the music. Had music not delivered Richard, too, on more than one occasion, from a life he’d believed himself trapped in?


City on Fire 3



He ended up at a record store on Bleecker Street. It was where he’d bought nearly every long-player put out by Blue Note Records in the 1950s, and countless Stax/Volt sides in the 60s… But now face-out on the wall were sleeves he didn’t recognize. At the counter a furry young man rang him up… [The clerk] held up one of the records, flipped it over to reveal a black and white shot of three guys in leather jackets and a woman a head taller. Backed up against an alley wall somewhere, they looked ready to take on all enemies and not fight fair.

City on Fire 2
 


commentary: I made a note on this book, early on, on my Kindle: it read
ffs ???
Bizarrely, the note kept popping up as I worked my way through the book, every now and then – something that has never happened before in several years of happy Kindle-reading and note-making. Has my Kindle got a mind of its own, is it actually commenting on the books now?

[FFS is a rude phrase, easily findable online if you don’t know it.]

This is the 3rd monster book I have read this year. Death of a Detective by Mark Smith was too long, but mesmerising and very impressive (summary: ‘it drove me mad but I couldn’t stop reading it’.) Then there was A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – I absolutely hated it, I thought it had no moral framework, and it was TOO LONG.

This one is somewhere in between, but it is TOO LONG: I plugged on through it – the print version has 944 pages – and I never thought of abandoning it, but I didn’t rush to pick it up either. A Little Life I read fast to get through it, The Detective I enjoyed getting lost in. This one – even towards the end I didn’t speed up, I just kept reading an allowance of pages, and I was relieved when it was done. But it certainly had something. It tells the story of a number of disparate people living in New York City in 1976/77, and culminates in the blackout in the city in July 77. Gradually you find the connections between the people, and you learn their backstories – so it has that incredibly annoying timeframe where you have to keep working out all over again every few pages when this bit of the story is set.

The book was (of course) the subject of a bidding war amongst publishers, and is supposed to be a work of genius and due to become a massive bestseller (just like the Yanagihara). But it truly would be a lot better if it was shorter – the good bits get lost in the padding, in the endless sidebits. Here is an example: At 87% of the way through, the world is in utter turmoil, there is violence everywhere and the possibility of worse to come, key character Carmine has a daughter who might be dying – he is racing across New York to see if she needs life-saving help. And suddenly we’re following his thoughts about his childhood 40 years previously: ‘After his granddad had died, they’d taken in a boarder for the downstairs flat, hemming Carmine in, forcing him further inward.’ Kindle, be my guest with the commentary: ‘ffs ???’

The story concerns a shooting on New Year’s Eve, when most of the main participants are nearby, but it is not a crime story or a mystery (though the attackers are not revealed till near the end) – though there is one very different revelation late on in the book which was a complete (and satisfying) surprise to me. There was some great writing, and some interesting ideas, and some very entertaining and funny bits. But it was TOO LONG.

City on Fire would be a much, much better book if it were a lot shorter.

However, I am delighted to have an opportunity to feature some of these pictures. George Eastman House has a collection of  black and white photos by James Jowers – I have used several of them on the blog before, and like them very much. They were all taken in the area of New York mentioned above in the late 60s.












10 comments:

  1. I read about this one over at Mary's Library and have dismissed it on sheer page count alone. When I do want a 900 page monster it will be Littell's The Company. Well done for reading it for me!

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    1. I'm glad I saved you the effort - but if I had to choose to read one a second time, I'd definitely go for this one over The Company!

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  2. Those are fabulous 'photos, Moira! And as for the book, I know just what you mean by too long. Sometimes you wonder what the editor was doing. As I read your post, I was also wondering about the timeline. It's one thing to go back and forth in one character's life, but doing that with a set of disparate characters strikes me as a bit disjointed. Hmmm.... I think that might pull me up. Still, that was a fascinating time, and I do like the sense of place.

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    1. Yes, he certainly did create an atmosphere, and I'd be very interested in the reactions of someone who lived in New York at that time -see how authentic it was. He is not old enough to know it personally, and I did catch him out, I think, in one very small detail he got wrong (to do with RC church ceremonies).

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  3. I think it is particularly difficult to read this kind of book as an e-book. And I do so agree with you about length. I feel the same about films. If someone is going to take two hours or more of my time, they really have to justify that.

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    1. Yes it is - I was trying not to say that too much, because it was a review copy, and they may have improved the appearance - but if someone WAS going to read it they'd be much better off with a paper copy.

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  4. Moira, the author is new to me. I like reading novels set in 50s to 80s America, especially in places like New York (in this case), Chicago, San Francisco, and LA. The black-and-white images you reproduced are exactly the way I'd picture scenes from that era.

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    1. I think it's his first book Prashant - very ambitious of him. I love those pictures so much - glad you like them too.

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  5. I tried commenting on this post and another one from my tablet last night but I don't seem to be able to master that. The second time it showed my Google login but still did not take it. Oh well, I don't really like commenting there, it just might mean I get to commenting sooner.

    And about this post... and the book. This is not the type of book I would read read at over 900 pages anyway. At least not at this point in my life. Very nice photos for the subject.

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    1. I don't know why that is about the posting, annoying isn't it? - sorry. Yes well I'm not really recommending the book - but well worth it to have a chance to use these photos.

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