Harper Lee was moved to write by a murder trial. F. Scott Fitzgerald was inspired by upper-crust parties on Long Island. Garth Risk Hallberg? He had a Billy Joel song.
So much hype has preceded Hallberg’s second novel, City on Fire—a nearly 1,000-page doorstopper that had a film deal even before it attracted a reported nearly $2 million for the publication rights—that it’s a little funny to hear the writer explain that the book had such quotidian origins. But every bid for the Great American Novel has to start somewhere, and Hallberg’s started in 2003 on a bus trip from Washington, D.C., to New York City, when his iPod shuffled in Joel’s “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” just as the Manhattan skyline came into view.
“Of all things, this Billy Joel song, which I did not know, about the blackout of '77, came on,” he says. “The song is a lot about this moment in the city where everything was kind of falling apart, and everything was maximally risky and dangerous, and also everything was possible. It's narrated from 40 years on by someone looking back from a time when everything's a lot safer, but a lot fewer things are possible. This is in 2003, the war had just started, and I thought, ‘Wow, we're living through this moment again.’ ”
Hallberg, 37, wrote a page in a notebook upon his arrival, with City on Fire’s broad themes already percolating—the collision of high and low cultures in New York around the 1977 blackout. But he just as quickly set the idea aside. “It was exhilarating, but it was also very frightening,” he says. “I just thought, ‘I don't have the chops to do this.’ ” Hallberg kept busy in the meantime teaching (he’s on the MFA faculty at Sarah Lawrence College) and pursuing other writing projects: he’s established himself as a highly esteemed critic, first for the literary website the Millions and then as a contributor to New York and the New York Times Magazine, and he wrote his debut novel, 2007’s A Field Guide to the North American Family.
The same year that book came out, Hallberg began writing City on Fire in earnest, shutting off concerns about publication or having the chops to do it. He simply wrote. “As I got a little older, I started to care less about something being published and more about it being something that I loved or that felt permanent to me,” he says.
In 1989 Tom Wolfe published an essay in Harper’s, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” that implored American fiction writers to think big again. Contemporary authors, he wrote, had abandoned their ambition to write multifaceted social novels that hoovered up every aspect of city life, especially its scruffier quarters, in favor of interior, polite minimalism. Wolfe, never the most modest writer, held up his own novel The Bonfire of the Vanities as a model if not exemplar of what was possible. But the number of authors who’ve risen to Wolfe’s challenge is modest: Richard Price, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Donna Tartt.
City on Fire enters this space with remarkable confidence; indeed, it embraces Wolfe’s mission more closely than those other writers. Set between 1976 and 1977 (though the narrative leaps to the decades before and since), the novel comprises hardscrabble punk rockers and junkies, financiers, writers, cops, and fireworkers—that last a subject that Hallberg has researched in close detail. One of the novel’s best set pieces is an interlude that imagines a magazine article about the trade, and a description of the novel’s journalist character hints at the novel’s own ambitions: “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. He wanted his articles to be, not infinite exactly, but big enough to suggest infinitude.”
“I didn't realize how interested I was in the fireworks until I got a little ways in,” Hallberg says. “I had seen a photograph by the photographer Karen Simon of what I think is the Grucci fireworks compound on Long Island, probably sometime between 2003 and 2007, at the Whitney. I thought, ‘Well, damn, that's an interesting world. I'd like to know more about that.’ Then it sort of receded into my unconscious, I guess, and I wasn't writing the book. Then, you sit down to write two years later and you discover that, way in the back of your mind, two things have become connected.”
The novel puts a lot of knowledge about ’70s New York on display: punk rock, municipal bonds, fireworks, journalism. But that kind Wolfe-ian detail, Hallberg says, is less important to him than using the novel to show how a diverse group of characters can inspire understanding in the reader—even if the characters aren’t particularly likable. “There is a small, I think, but vocal group of people who feel that Franzen has some kind of contempt for some of his characters because he is so hard on them,” he says. “I feel like he must really love them. He's really loving them by trying to really get very down deep where things get uncomfortable. By putting that on the page or exposing them in that way is not a way of expressing contempt but rather a way of expressing compassion.”
Hallberg takes a pass on discussing the attention that surrounded City on Fire’s publication and film rights. (“I just look at that stuff as not my job. My job is to work.”) Nor is he ready to discuss what future writing projects he might be working on. But he suggests that the epic ambition he channeled to write the novel is more accessible, more necessary, and perhaps even more fun than people have been led to believe.
“When I teach, I tell my students, ‘You're not writing to be in a marketplace with whomever is being reviewed in Books of the Times today, who happens to be roughly your age. If you're serious about it, you're writing to participate in a community with Virginia Woolf and Philip Roth. And how cool is that?’ ” he says. “I was thinking how fun it is to sit down and work on a book and to think—not to say I was wanting to be George Eliot, but that kind of book—I can try to do something like that.”Mark Athitakis has written about books for the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the Barnes & Noble Review, and numerous other publications. He lives in Phoenix.