Epic ‘City On Fire’ Burns Almost Too Brightly

In every book, you have to find a character that you love. This is true for authors as well as readers — we both need something to hang onto when the going gets rough, someone to root for, someone in whom we find small fragments of ourselves.

This is doubly true in this epoch of the multiply-narrated novel and the omniscient voice. Triply true when authors get to door-stopping and their books creep upwards of five-, six- and seven-hundred pages. When you’re talking about that kind of commitment, you want to do your time with someone you like.

Me? I like Charlie Weisbarger — one of the (many) POV characters in Garth Risk Hallberg’s epic, monstrous, beautiful debut novel, City On Fire. Charlie is 17, dorky, asthmatic, a newly minted punk from the Long Island suburbs, in love with Sam, the unattainable girl 10,000 times cooler than he is. Here he is, sneaking into the city with her on New Year’s Eve of 1976 to see a show — last gasp of the legendary (and fictional) punk band Ex Post Facto, at the kind of place where the guy working the door is named Bullet.

Who hasn’t been there? Hasn’t made that walk in Charlie’s shoes — chasing love and lust and fear down bad paths that make the world shine despite what lies at their ends? Things are going to go bad for Charlie. They’re going to go worse for Sam. But in that moment, Charlie is all of us — young and dumb and sweet and scared and perfect.

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