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Garth Risk Hallberg’s ‘City on Fire’ Is Too Big To Describe Here, But I Can Try

city on fire

For what Carmine Cicciaro had learned by then, and I suppose I had, too, concerned not only the baffling multiplicity of all things, but also their no less baffling integration. No amount of art, even of the Great American variety, can elevate you above, or insulate you from, the divisions, the cataclysms, of ordinary life. Still, as I turned to shake his hand and tell him I’d be seeing him, I couldn’t quite get free of how it used to feel, waiting for the July 4th display, back on the humid town common of the Tulsa where I was a kid. How, down on the bandshell, a local vocal quartet would be warming up, their candy-striped jackets a pink mess in the heat. How I would lie on my back on the blanket, slightly apart from my cousins, dreaming. At some point, the Rutabaga Brothers and the Lemon Sisters would rouse us to our feet and lead us in patriotic song, and then it would begin: signal lights ascending the sky, two, three, a dozen, a hundred.

I had no other associations then for the sound of mortar fire, for the cascades of color swimming up to meet their counterparts in the face of the swollen brown river. All I wanted was more, more, more. I’d ask myself at each volley, in an ecstacy of anticipation, was this the last one? Was this? But maybe that is what, in the end, brings this particular art closer to life than its more mimetic siblings can ever manage–what I’d glimpsed in the summer of 1976, watching the Bicentennial on a TV 2,000 miles away: Each display of fireworks is utterly time-bound. A singularity. No past and no future. Save for the fireworker himself, no one ever knows the grand finale is the grand finale until it’s over. And at that point, wherever one is, one won’t ever really have been anywhere else.

–Garth Risk Hallberg, City on Fire

Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire is just a bit too big in all sense of the word. So much hype! So many characters! I’ve finished it, and I’m not sure I can fit it all in my brain.

The book is an intimate examination a large group of characters living in New York in 1977, with alternating narration and interludes from the story for various characters artistic endeavors: zines, letters, a piece of investigative journalism. These characters connect and come apart like pick-up sticks, meeting in brief moments then pushing apart again.

How can I summarize what this book is about in less several pages? How can I do it in even a few sentences? This book is about punks and the super-rich, fireworks and rock and roll, corruption and jealousy and love and family. This book is about a guy from a wealthy family who used to be in a band and now has a drug problem and a group of whacked out punks following him. This book is about another guy who wants to write a great novel but is really just in love with someone who doesn’t love him back and is hurt and angry about it. A woman who left her husband and is on her own with the kids. A bunch of kids who don’t know what it means to love or to grow up or to put down the pipe when you start to hallucinate. It’s about a cop who should retire but can’t because there is a young woman laying in a hospital bed who will never walk or talk again. And then, this book is about the New York blackout of 1977. The lights going out, the streets coming alive.

At 944 pages, City on Fire follows in the footsteps of those big books we’ve all so recently read and loved: The Goldfinch (771 pages), The Luminaries (834 pages), A Little Life (720 pages). But Hallberg’s was the first book of this length that I’d read and thought to myself “Jesus, this book is sooo long!” As perspective switched yet again at a critical juncture, as I’d slogged through so much and not gotten to any sort of epic blackout, as another long interlude came up, I began wondering–just how much is too much? And did City on Fire push me over my big book edge?

Hallberg received a much-hyped nearly $2 million dollar advance for this debut novel, after a bidding war amongst publishers. The movie rights were sold before the bidding war even began. The novel was compared, by the agents who had copies of the nearly thousand page manuscript, to Michael Chabon and Thomas Pynchon. This was hype with a capital H. I learned about City on Fire through its (also) much-hyped ARC’s. Those in the highest echelons of bookland received a seven-volume advanced reader’s copy with beautiful artwork. This caused some people to freak out with joy and City on Fire to become a most wanted book of the season, as others stood back and asked WTF.

When I got my approval for an advanced copy this Fall (a Kindle copy, no higher echelon girl here!), obviously I was totally excited. And Hallberg’s writing is good, no doubt about that. He peels back people’s skin, examining their insides, the reason each individual ticks and is hurt, wants or fears. These reasons are often totally unknown to those closest to them in the novel, creating a sense of disconnection for each character. Everyone in the story seems to be wading through their own thoughts first, and the hustle and bustle of life in New York second. Which is a shame, because the action here is the best stuff. The plot itself, the interweaving of all these seemingly random characters into each other’s lives, the delight of the chance encounters, all those puzzle pieces of lonely life fitting together into one great canvas of New York City–this is what made City on Fire great.

City on Fire on’

Review – Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker


The demand for commercial sex will never go away. Neither will the internet; they’re stuck with each other. It may no longer even matter anymore whether the sale of sex among consenting adults is wrong or right, immoral or empowering. What’s clear is that no good can come from pretending that the people who participate in prostitution don’t exist. That, after all, is what the killer was counting on.
–Robert Kolker, Lost Girls

Lost Girls starts with a story straight out of a mystery novel, a trendy Scandinavian crime thriller: a panicked prostitute disrupts a sleepy and isolated beach community, usually peaceful behind its private gate, when she sprints from door to door, asking for help, hiding behind bushes and parked boats. A man in a black SUV chases the woman down as she sprints away from his headlights. The stunned community calls the police. Cops show up too late–forty-five minutes later, they arrive to no trace of the girl or the black SUV. In their search for the young woman months later, police start to discover bodies. Four of them, clustered together, at first.

This mysterious sequence of events, seemingly created in the dark mind of a mystery novelist, is pulled from recent history. Robert Kolker‘s Lost Girls documents the unsolved murders of four women (possibly more) on Oak Beach, a barrier island of Long Island. All four women were prostitutes; all four were using Craigslist to solicit johns. It seems the killer in this case realized what apparently many killers do: prostitutes are often not reported as missing, and their deaths are often dismissed as the price of their chosen vocation. Kolker eloquently describes this after one especially frustrating police ruling: “the police seemed to be saying that [the missing woman] had died because her soul had been rent asunder by a life in the streets.”

Lost Girls asks the traditional true crime questions–who is the murderer? Why haven’t they been caught? Why weren’t the bodies noticed? And what about the pathologically lying, limping doctor who lives on Oak Island? But there is an even greater mystery at hand which Lost Girls chooses to explore–how does someone end up on Craigslist, offering their body to strangers for cash? Kolker, in a fascinating, touching, and intimate way, tracks the story of each woman back by finding those who knew her best, from childhood forward. Illustrated by maps charting each woman’s ominous progression towards her final destination point of Oak Beach, NY, Lost Girls documents the four women’s lives. They all encounter hiccups, struggles, and tragedies along the way that lead them to prostitution and Craigslist; their stories all halt mid-frame as each young woman goes missing in the midst of a life they were planning to earn just a bit more from and then get the hell out of.

By making Lost Girls the story of the murdered women, much more than the investigation or the killer-at-large, Kolker manages to shine light on a glaring and uncomfortable point of the sex trade: police seem to dismiss reports of missing prostitutes. Or their friends, working girls themselves, are too fearful to report them missing. When the women are found murdered, and the police are forced to show more interest, they still seem to chalk murder up to a direct result of prostitution, placing the blame with the women and the women’s families. Kolker documents some unbearable victim-blaming by the police, and near the end of the book, it gets to be difficult to read: police describing the women as “greedy”, suggesting they can’t resist going with a serial killer john who offers them a lot of money to hop into a shady situation.

The only thing I did feel was missing, and it seemed to be achingly absent from the second half of the book, was documentation of some of the police work done on the case. I’m not sure if this is because the killer is still out there and the police didn’t want to reveal too much of their investigation, or if there was another reason for this, but Kolker doesn’t document the police investigation itself. It seems that Kolker has one brief interview with the Suffolk County police commissioner and his chief of detectives, both desperately needing a lesson in PR. I kept waiting for more detailed information on the police investigation that never came.

Mysteries without a clear solution are captivating, exhausting, frustrating. As noted in my review of The Hanging Judge a few weeks ago, there can often seem to be a moment when looking over all the evidence, in puzzles both real and created, where it is clear no single explanation can possibly explain past events. Kolker has managed to write clearly about a puzzling mess of facts, rumors, and biases which have built this unsolved case into something daunting and nonsensical. He writes about what happened in the only way we can understand, for now: by telling the stories of the victims, overlooked for so long, unable to speak for themselves. These women were, truly, lost girls. Kolker dared to try to find them. Sadly, he was too late.

Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery on

Robert Kolker’s Author Page/selected articles written by Kolker for New York Magazine

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