What kind of relationships are best described in a guidebook supported by art photos? It’s complicated.
The success of Hallberg’s 2015 epic, City on Fire, prompted the reissue of this short but structurally ambitious novella, first published by a small press in 2007. As the title suggests, the story takes the form of a guidebook. Verso pages provide brief narrative sketches under thematic headings such as “Angst,” “Freedom,” and “Midlife Crisis”; recto pages feature documentary photos in a Mary Ellen Mark/Robert Frank vein, with cross-references and faux scientific captions. (“Fidelity is a lesser-known relative of the more common Infidelity.”) Despite all that apparatus (readers are also encouraged to bounce around chapters, à la Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch), the plot is straightforward, capturing the anxieties and tragedies of two neighboring middle-class Long Island families. The Harrisons are broken after the death of their patriarch while the Hungate parents have split up, forcing the teenage children in both houses to try various coping strategies: Tommy Harrison tells outsized lies about his accomplishments, Gabriel Hungate gets overly into graffiti and drugs, and cheerleader Lacey Harrison gets overly into Gabriel. Gabriel, we learn early on, has suffered an accident that sent him to a burn unit, and the various perspectives are unified by a mood of somberness and regret. (“Optimism is enormous at birth, and gradually shrinks to its adult size,” goes one typical intonation.) But there’s a disconnect between the pathos of the story and the medium through which Hallberg delivers it, a sense that for all the seriousness of the plight of the Harrisons and Hungates, they’re essentially satirical targets, half-awake booshwa suburbanites too concerned with “Entertainment” and “Fiscal Responsibility” when they should focus on “Meaning, Search For.”
Hallberg has a fine novelist’s grace and sensitivity but delivers this story with a taxonomist’s heart.