Photography Grant Delin

Published November 18, 2015


if I’m reading a book and it feels so controlled that there’s never a chance of it going off the rails, it doesn’t feel ambitious enough. Garth Risk Hallberg

There are novels set in New York City—hundreds of thousands upon hundreds of thousands at the time of writing—and there are novels about it. A novel that attempts to conjure New York, not just a corner or a building or a neighborhood, but the whole meaty scaffolding, from subway to penthouse, must be, at heart, wildly ambitious. The writer would need to penetrate so many uncertain windows that one imagines the endeavor tantamount to a skyscraper window washer without the protection of a safety harness. I’m guessing that as far back as the moment when publishing houses and their attendant authors and agents first inaugurated New York City the writing capital of the universe, there have been rumblings of a great novel that would span its borders and capture its unorthodox spirit. I’m also guessing that Garth Risk Hallberg would resist the mantle of author of the great New York City novel with his debut novel, City on Fire (Knopf), but he comes as close to it as any I’ve read in my lifetime. It’s got the blood and soul and grit of the city, with some jaw-dropping descriptive pyrotechnics.

City on Fire is set in the romantic dark days of 1976 and 1977 East Coast Babylon, and the teeth of the novel hinges on the shooting of a young Long Island punk named Samantha on a snowy New Year’s Eve in Central Park. The 36-year-old author lets that incident ripple like sound waves that reach the ears of the rich and poor, the winners and the losers, those who run the corporations and live in baronial uptown splendor and those who are squatting in the East Village in clouds of punk rock, cheap drugs, and radical nihilism. But City on Fire isn’t a crime story; it’s a series of portraits of urban lives scrambling and back-peddling and advancing sidewalk square by sidewalk square: a brother and sister who take dramatically different routes in handling their place of privilege; a gay black writer/high-school teacher who fights for his own stability amid the dream bust; an adopted teenager obsessed with Patti Smith and trying desperately to fit into something that doesn’t look like a suburb. Yet, like a crime investigation, the evidence of Hallberg’s wicked talents is all in the details. He’s so masterful at describing the city, at perfectly dreaming it for us, that it does exactly what great literature can do: stand up as accurate even as it knocks us over with its beauty. From the “brushed-metal cobra-style streetlights” to “the great green rug of the park” where “brown circles had begun to spread like cigarette burns,” Hallberg’s city is New York. Or maybe it’s drawn best on the manqué-writer Mercer’s first bus trip from the South into Manhattan: “Then they crested the ridge of Weehawken, and there it was, New York City, thrust from the dull miles of water like a clutch of steely lilies.” City on Fire is one of those rare big novels that actually succeeds on a micro level; every sentence is a song.

Last August, I met up with Hallberg just as he was back from vacation with his wife and two kids. We sat in a crowded SoHo restaurant. It was a long way from 1977.

CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN: Did you get out of the city this summer?

GARTH RISK HALLBERG: I was just up in Maine for a week. My family goes to Mount Desert Island, where Acadia National Park is. I have this weird tropism for islands. Take me to an island as far from New York as I can possibly go. So Hawaii? We’re actually thinking of ex-patriating for a while.

BOLLEN: I could use a year out of New York. Let the brain grow wider than a one-bedroom apartment.

HALLBERG: When you go away, you can feel your IQ rising; there are fewer moving pieces and fewer things to keep track of. At the end of the week in Maine, I felt like I had all kinds of actual, fascinating ideas again.

BOLLEN: It’s also a wonderful feeling to realize how little New York needs you when you’re gone, and thus, how little you need it. But your book is all about New York, and one of the interesting side effects of City on Fire is how much it made me fall back in love with the town. Maybe, partly, because a lot of the action takes place on East Third Street, which is where I live. I’m going to be honest: When I first heard that your novel was set in New York in the 1970s, my reaction was, “Oh, everyone romanticizes the hell out of that period.” But miraculously, you created a living, vital city far beyond the usual nostalgia. Were you at all worried about picking a time period that had been so culturally mined?

HALLBERG: I didn’t experience it as picking a time so much as being picked by it. Rather than casting about for a subject, I had this experience of being forcibly seized by it. This is probably standard for many writers; Henry James said that you just feel a sense of possession take hold of you. Then you’re sort of stuck with it. You’re like, “All right, this is the thing I have to write.”

BOLLEN: How did it seize you? I’m guessing through the music of the ’70s, the punk scene, Patti Smith.

HALLBERG: This might be a way of slowly circling around to the question of nostalgia. I had been more or less in love with the city since seeing The Muppets Take Manhattan [1984] as a kid. Of course, it’s not unusual to feel some sort of imagined possession over the place where the movies are set. But for me, it was more the place where the books came from. I grew up in a university town in eastern North Carolina—what’s called Tobacco Road. It was very rural. This is pre-internet and almost pre-chain store. So, to be from the provinces was to feel a little more provincial back then. It was a very conservative place, in all kinds of complicated ways. And I’m using conservative in the value-neutral sense as well as ideologically, but also just in its approach to culture, identity, the degree of acceptance of nonconformity. And, of course, every teenager is going to feel bad wherever they’re from.

BOLLEN: Really? Some teenagers seem to fit in so well, like they never suffer that homegrown vertigo. Maybe it’s the uncomfortable ones who fantasize about New York.

HALLBERG: My experience was looking around and seeing a bunch of other adolescents who were having experiences similar to mine. Even the jocks felt internally like outcasts, or insufficient somehow. That’s why they’re such jerks a lot of the time. I’m always a little bit nervous talking about where I come from, because I don’t want to romanticize my own sense of being different or weird or apart. But, you know, it’s sort of an empirical fact that I more or less fist-fought my way through sixth grade, since that was the time when people really start to stick out. And one of the ways I stuck out was I was a very passionate reader. There was probably a cyclical nature to that; the more I felt like an outcast, the more I sought refuge in books, and the more I sought refuge in books, the more it made me not speak the same language as my peers.

BOLLEN: Like most addictions, it spirals.

HALLBERG: But, for me, New York was where the books came from. At 14 and 15 I was sort of my town’s resident beatnik. And New York had this whole continuum of postwar experience, from Kerouac and Ginsberg to Warhol and Edie Sedgwick to the Ramones and Patti Smith and Lou Reed. You can actually look at Lou Reed going from Delmore Schwartz to Andy Warhol to being his own sort of mentor. So New York was the place where my dreams went and solidified into the architecture that would be hospitable for a person like me. That was where I was going to go and live.

BOLLEN: When did you move to New York?

HALLBERG: 2004. But as a teenager I started coming up to visit. I made these friends in Washington, D.C., the nearest metropolis, and we’d come up on the bus. There was a girl who grew up on Central Park West who I had this thing for. A lot of what’s in the book is a version of my coming-to-New York story. And one of the things I remember most vividly is how little daylight there was in the city, just as I had dreamed it.

BOLLEN: I wonder if New York still holds up as a version of what people dream it to be. Certainly, a lot of the street life that was even around when you were coming up as a teenager is gone—that street life you’re so good at rendering in the novel. I moved here in 1996, just as Giuliani was in the midst of cleaning it up. I hope some of that old residue proves too resistant to scrape off. Also, it really helps to be young when you’re first arriving in New York. I think that’s the key, and maybe why it’s harder as we age to access now. You don’t want to be the old grouchy man in the corner complaining about how great New York used to be to a bunch of young people who really don’t care.

HALLBERG: I was always the watcher in the bar, anyway. But my fantasy of the city was of a place that was riven with tensions and conflicts and contracts. So it wasn’t a unified vision, like one of those Disney medieval-village reconstructions. I don’t know where I picked up all the particular details that made their way into the novel, but I kind of drew them around people going crazy and having a hard time.

BOLLEN: You could have easily Disneyfied the extremes of 1970s New York. It’s impressive that you managed to create a city on the edge but not in this prepackaged, easy-to-swallow variety, like punk rock with all the edges sanded down.

HALLBERG: Well, I watched what happened in the fall of 2001 from Washington. I was 22 years old. I was like, “Okay, I’m out of college, life is starting, I’ve failed to make it to New York.” I was basically in D.C. with my wife—

BOLLEN: You married so young.

HALLBERG: Yeah. She wasn’t my wife yet. But as you can see, chasing girls to wherever they may be is a theme of mine.

BOLLEN: So D.C. on 9/ll.

HALLBERG: I’m sure you remember it in similar terms—a kind of overturning of everything that had seemed solid and dependable. Including the future that I had imagined and thought I was moving toward. The vibe in the late ’90s had been sort of like—other than Y2K—history’s over, everybody’s just watching their mutual funds rise and that’s going to be the great historical narrative of the 21st century; the century when nothing really happens to privileged Westerners. So it was a galvanizing moment. I feel like an asshole talking about 9/11, but the gravity of what actually happened there is such that it’s like if you’re going to speak about it, you almost have to write a 900-page book. But, all that said, I felt this thing happening around New York and America and life itself that was this intense mask slipping off the face a little bit and showing just enough of what was behind it. Deborah Eisenberg described it as a curtain behind which reality was happening, and the curtain parting a little bit. What’s behind the curtain is, we’re all going to die, full stop. We’ve always known that, and it’s always going to be there, whether or not we look at it. And then painted on the curtain is: We all need to go shopping and get behind this war effort and pay no attention to what’s behind the curtain. And then there was this period immediately afterward when it was like a feeling at a funeral, where everything’s a little wild and everything’s a little unhinged, but also everyone seems really focused on what’s important. And I would come up to New York to see friends. I had this need to make contact with the city. We would go out at night and the atmosphere was very charged. It seemed like the rawness of people thinking very hard about what mattered to them, and how they wanted to spend this exact hour, because you didn’t know if tomorrow was going to come.

BOLLEN: Right, because it wasn’t just one event. At that time, officials were telling us constantly that it was going to happen again, at any second.

HALLBERG: Yeah, but there was something really true and powerful, to me, about the possibility of actually making meaningful choices about how we wanted to live as individuals or as citizens or as communities. That was very threatening to people whose interests were in us continuing to watch our mutual funds grow. And I felt all this ideological work being done to cover up the real questions that seemed to me so amazingly urgent. And, to finally answer the question, the book came to me on a bus ride in 2003 coming up to the city. It was the same bus ride I used to take when I was a teenager. I’m on this bus in the swamplands of New Jersey, and there’s always a point during the trip where you look out the window and you see the skyline, and it was like the same feeling I had at 17: “I’m there, I made it. I’m in the place where I’m supposed to be for the first time in my life.” I had just gotten an iPod and loaded all of my music onto it. So I had it on shuffle, which I love the serendipity of, and I’m on the bus at the exact threshold of seeing the skyline, and it’s daylight, and I haven’t seen it from the Jersey side by daylight for years. And the skyline looks so different. It always looked like a schooner to me, with two masts in the financial district. And the financial district was just blocked out. And the iPod played this Billy Joel song from 1976 about New York and its decline. It’s from his parenthetical period, of having parentheses in the titles of songs. The title people know this song by is “Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway,” which is the parenthetical. The title is actually “Miami 2017.” It’s narrated from 2017, and it’s someone looking back at that whole period of chaos and disorder. People have had it. They sail the city out to sea and sink it and move on. It has this strange tension of, “Oh, everything’s so much more pleasant here, and we don’t have to be back there in that old stinking, dirty hellhole where we’re constantly shoved up against other people and their needs and their desperation and whatever.” But on the other hand, something was lost back there. And I had this feeling similar to when you get two mirrors set up at such an angle that if you look just right you can see all the way to infinity. I had this feeling of where I was sitting mirroring this other moment somehow. Everything that’s been pressing on me for the last two years is somehow wanting to find its reflection in this other time. It’s a very visceral thing; it wasn’t intellectual. But to intellectualize, I had the feeling of some sort of dialectical tension between safety and security, stability, order, which were the kind of big, lacquered items in 2003. Like, everybody wants to be safe, we’re going to keep you safe, we’re going to restore order. That’s also the Giuliani thing, too. And then on the other hand, freedom, life, vulnerability, risk—the kind of beauty that only comes with the potential of loss. Like, the world of perfect order and security that was being promised to us had no room for a life that would involve taking great risks and having spectacular failures, but also moments of great beauty and intensity and awareness. And a life of perfect safety and security would also have no room for the kind of really dangerous thing that happens when you really open yourself up to another person. Just as in an interpersonal relationship, you’re not safe; you’re trusting the other person or else that relationship is doomed. So I was like, “Oh, my god, that’s the book.” It was imagery, it was scale, it was architecture, characters—everything came in 45 seconds. I felt like my brain was going to melt. It was like being a very small wire with way too much current. I got off the bus, and I was supposed to go see a friend, and I didn’t call him. Instead, I went down to Union Square and got a notebook, and I wrote this page, and I got to the end of it and was so scared by what I was writing.

BOLLEN: Was it an outline? Notes?

HALLBERG: It was a scene. And I remember thinking that it had so much power it was basically going to run me over and drive all over my face and leave me for dead. I just thought, “I don’t have the chops to write this book. And if I keep writing right now, I’m going to totally screw this up, and the concrete will set and I’ll have ruined it.” And I put it in a drawer, I shut the notebook, and I was like, “I’ll come back to that in ten years. I can’t write this gigantic book right now.” And I put it away. Four years later I came back to it.

BOLLEN: When you did come back to it, had you done an insane amount of research into the time period? I imagine you must have been constantly trying to regulate the little details of the 1970s—even like where subway stops were in 1976 or what the inside of a cab looked like. Did you obsessively watch Serpico [1973] or other gritty ’70s New York films for clues?

HALLBERG: No. I thought of it as a science-fiction landscape, in a way. I didn’t want to over-research. There were moments where I wondered, “What kind of hair would this character have?” And then I had a slight twinge of, “Is that period appropriate?” I learned to override that impulse: “No, no, that’s what the hair is doing, just figure out why. Come back to it later.” And actually I ended up not having to change a lot of the stuff because it was all weirdly accurate, or, alternatively, convincingly successfully fraudulent. Convincingly bogus. But I didn’t want it to be effortful. I basically didn’t want to write a historical novel.

BOLLEN: In your vision on the bus, did you realize that this was going to be a big book with seven sections? It couldn’t have been a novella.

HALLBERG: That was one of the things that sort of came to me from that window: “Oh, this is going to be roughly the size of Bleak House. That’s why I stopped writing it and put it away for four years. I ended up finishing the first draft in about three years.

BOLLEN: Wow, you must be a fast writer.

HALLBERG: I actually think I’m a very slow writer. I was just doing it all the time. I didn’t have anything else going on. I just curled up and went crazy. And I was having so much fun. It felt so right early on. It was torture, too. When I say it’s fun, it’s fun with a lot of asterisks.

BOLLEN: Yeah. It’s fun like how contemplating suicide can be fun.

HALLBERG: [laughs] It was giving me something.

BOLLEN: I want to ask you about the novel’s group of young radicals, which share certain ideological ambitions with other groups of the 1970s, like the Weather Underground. Your group is called the Post-Humanists. I think of “post-humanism” as actually quite pro-human, anti-death, but your Post-Humanists are a bit of a death cult, all about the celebration of destruction and the end—which I suppose is punk rock taken to its logical conclusion. What was your inspiration for your East Village collective?

HALLBERG: One of the things we grew up with in the late ’90s, up to today, is the more or less constant feeling of the parameters of what’s possible. Politics is the art of the possible, right? It’s a very narrow art. Of course, there are very meaningful differences between your vote for candidate X versus candidate Y—it does make a difference. But the kind of, “Do you want this flavor of neoliberal economic growth above all policies, or do you want this other flavor of it?” And I think I was trying to go back to the last moment when people en masse were contemplating truly different alternatives. I actually cribbed a phrase from Hillary Clinton’s valedictory speech at Wellesley. She’s exhorting her fellow graduates to search for some more, quote “ecstatic and penetrating mode of living,” which I think is a beautiful and very 22-year-old sentiment. But the last historical time when people were collectively embracing the possibility of wholesale transformation basically ended right about 1975. And not incidentally, there’s a persuasive argument to be made that the New York of 1975, the post-fiscal-crisis New York, was the first laboratory for some of what we think of as standard neoliberal economic policy. Chile being the second. Then Thatcher and Reagan using austerity as a cudgel to privatize what’s been public, and so on.

BOLLEN: Your Post-Humanists really do see the specter of capitalism rising up around them. I sometimes think our generation is prone to romanticizing destruction: Let’s put a bomb in the machine. But one of your characters, Mercer, he’s a true outsider-black, gay, from the South, a sensitive writer-aspirant. He’s the one character in City on Fire who has something very real at hand to be angry about. But he’s not a destruction-fantasy type.

HALLBERG: I think of him of being a repository for what humanism might look like. Kind of like muddled and slightly defeated humanism in this late date in history, but still not afraid to take a risk in caring about people. I actually think of all the characters as being outsiders in some way or another. And the fact that you don’t notice it is because New York is a place where everybody’s an outsider, basically. I don’t think I’m disregarding the vast swath of people who were born and raised in New York; even they would probably walk around SoHo today and feel like they don’t fit in here.

BOLLEN: It’s impossible to own New York. Which I guess makes it a sort of commune of paying squatters. No one is so native that they can claim it over anyone else.

HALLBERG: I was looking at a book just this morning about the public library fight—the central library plan that got defeated. It’s the story of a few people deciding that they can and do own New York, and then being incredibly frustrated by the fact that they don’t. The little old ladies at the community meeting who are like, “No! Over my dead body.” Grace Paley helped organize these protests in the Village to prevent Robert Moses from building a super highway that would have basically covered this restaurant.

BOLLEN: Occasionally, there’s a little protest that brews up in Tompkins Square Park. Five or six people with homemade signs denouncing a slumlord and someone who has gotten their hands on a microphone and a portable speaker. It’s a tiny cry, but it’s amazing they still go onto public ground and make some noise about who’s screwing them over.

HALLBERG: It’s about getting together a bunch of people who aren’t exactly like you. And that was the feeling I was talking about.

BOLLEN: You’re also a book critic, and as such, you know the lay of the literary land. I found it interesting that you chose to write a novel bolstered by that old art of the character portrait. This is character-driven, realist fiction.

HALLBERG: Yeah, that’s how I read, and it’s what I respond to. I just read The House of Mirth in Maine. I couldn’t even tell you the ins and outs of the plot; they’re just gone. But I’ll never forget Lily Bart. How did I not know that she dies at the end? Spoiler alert. But it was like this perfectly preserved spoiler for me. I was shocked.

BOLLEN: Speaking of Lily’s drug death, I was impressed with your ability to conjure the feeling of drug use—from the deep dive of heroin to jittery cocaine to the mellow, functional coma of pot. You really nailed drug writing, which I swear is a compliment. Because it’s so often like writing about sex—it usually comes across as a bit embarrassing.

HALLBERG: Some days I would just fall into the writing and get up from the desk at the end of the day with a complete chapter. I’d be five pages into a scene and it would feel like whatever the rest of the book looks like, these five pages will be in there very close to how they came out. I loved that feeling.

BOLLEN: Were you looking to any other particular novels as guides? Did you put yourself on any sort of reading diet? I always find that books are most dangerous for other writers, in terms of the way it can send them in certain directions.

HALLBERG: Obviously, I’m at my desk for a lot of the day. But I think of the job as more a cast of mind than any specific thing I may be doing. Do you know this term, rapid cycling?


HALLBERG: It’s like, if you’re bipolar, your swings tend to take place over a time horizon of a week. Or, for some, it might be three months up, three months down. But if you’re hour to hour, moving from elation and grandiosity to misery, that’s rapid cycling. I was walking around earlier, and I was having this experience of the period before the book comes out. So I’d come into the city to walk off the anxiety. And I was like, “Ugh, why am I so down?” I walked here from Irving Place. So I thought, “I’m going to put on some music on shuffle and just walk and think. And just like with writing, I’m going to trust that this process will take me where I need to be, mentally.” And sure enough, within three blocks, I lost awareness of myself and started really noticing people—everyone seems interesting, everyone seems attractive. And having a really nice New York experience. And it’s the same way with reading for me. I’m doing the various practices that I need to do to maintain the cast of mind I need to do good work. If all that’s in place, then whatever I happen to be reading, whatever comes my way, will somehow be the right thing for me to read or get what I need from it.

BOLLEN: There is some magic in the universe, too, where things come to you at the right moment in writing.

HALLBERG: I’m very superstitious about forcing it, too. Retrospectively, I can say I was reading a lot of Henry James. Henry James would probably roll over in his grave if he knew he was in any way responsible for this book. But in my mind there’s something important that I got. Henry James, Saul Bellow, Deborah Eisenberg. But I really try not to drive the work too hard in some direction. Kant’s definition of aesthetic experience is “purposiveness without purpose”—something that has the shape and form of being purposeful but is being shaped to no particular purpose.

BOLLEN: What about the resolution of who shot Sam in Central Park? Surely you must have felt some purposeful need to resolve the main plot point?

HALLBERG: I didn’t want to know until the book knew, until the reader knows.

BOLLEN: You didn’t know ahead of time?

HALLBERG: No. I started to have my suspicions.

BOLLEN: Like a Lily Bart moment—you didn’t know until you got there.

HALLBERG: A lot of what gives that scene in The House of Mirth its power is that I don’t think Edith Wharton knows whether she’s going to kill her off or have her hover near death.

BOLLEN: Or if Selden comes and saves her.

HALLBERG: I think she’s finding out sentence by sentence as she writes. And so with the sort of resolution of the shooting, it’s like you set things up; you give yourself all these tools, and you’re not sure which one you’re going to use, and then, of course, when I decided … I don’t feel like I decided; I feel like the book decided.

BOLLEN: Until you write books, you don’t realize that the book does decide certain things. It must sound like complete insanity to nonwriters. And maybe it is.

HALLBERG: Yeah, it’s very precious. There’s Nabokov famously knocking Forster for saying his characters are taking over, and Nabokov says, “My characters are galley slaves.” You know, I’m down there whipping them. So Nabokov might be right, and Forster’s thing might seem precious and a necessary form of self-delusion, but nonetheless, I mean to preserve the fiction that the book decides. And once the book decided, then that’s why it took me two and a half years to revise it. I had to go back and figure out, does this all line up?

BOLLEN: Just as there are so many opportunities and tools you build up over the course of writing a novel, there are also a number of missteps that can be made. Sometimes the book can tell you the wrong way to go.

HALLBERG: You need the chances for missteps. The reader needs to be held in a state of tension over whether the whole thing is going to fall apart.

BOLLEN: That’s the beauty of a magic act, right? You believe it actually might go wrong.

HALLBERG: To me, if I’m reading a book and it feels so controlled that there’s never a chance of it going off the rails, it doesn’t feel ambitious enough. Sometimes you even need it to go off the rails a little bit, so you can appreciate the feeling. It’s like a roller coaster. You want to feel like the roller coaster could break at any minute, but you don’t actually want to die.CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN IS INTERVIEW‘S EDITOR AT LARGE.