The main character in City on Fire is New York. Not the town as we know it today: fashionable, shopalicious and a tourist attraction, City on Fire takes us to the New York of the seventies: derelict, criminal, with entire no-go areas, a municipality and police force that lack in purpose and strength, and poverty. But also the place to be for aspiring artists like Warhol, Patti Smith or David Bowie, attracting young people who want to start an exciting new life far away from the restrictions of home. For 960 pages New York is the scene for an exhilarating novel that shrewdly mixes the lives of a small group of people. Rich-poor, Manhattan – suburbs, insecure high school students – punk drop-outs, journalists, deejay’s and police agents are connected; their lives gradually turn out to be intertwined. Their relationships determine events in their lives, however shallow or short the connection. Risk Hallberg introduces us to these people, concentrating on some who we get to know very well, purposely placing some in the background. We never get to know well characters like the demon uncle or punker Chaos, which perfectly fits their dubious and shady contribution to the lives of the others.
I will not even make an effort to summarize the plot of City on Fire: too much happens. Suffice it to say that over a period of several years, skipping to and from in time Risk Hallberg talks about a murder inquiry, fraud, anarchism, artistic temperament, puberty and family trouble, lots of family trouble. Risk Hallberg joins everything together perfectly. There are no loose endings, not a single person is superfluous. Risk Hallberg furthermore adds excitement by having the apotheosis take place on juli 13th 1977. On that day New York was left in the dark, putting the powerless city on fire literally and figuratively. Risk Hallberg had already impressed me with his beautiful style and choice of words, my admiration for his talent grew even more when July 13th arrives. The way he describes the dark city, known and unknown at the same time, the desperation of parents looking for their lost children, lovers trying to find their lovers, the police agent desperately searching for a bomb. The only comment I could give is that Risk Hallberg starts to philosophize precisely when I was desperate to know whether the bomb was going to be found or explode. He slowed down the novel at the exact moment I wanted extra speed. In the context of the entire novel however, this is a mere detail.
Do you have a vacation coming on soon? Have you got some spare time? You’d not want to miss out on 960 pages of very good writing.