How I got Burned by Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire

October 29, 2015 Historical Fiction 40

City on Fire, Garth Risk HallbergHistorical Fiction
Released October 13, 2015
944 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it.
Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Purchased


I truly believe there is a great book hiding in City on Fire‘s 944 pages, but it was unfortunately lost amidst pretentious language, an overreaching plot, and an ending that made me want to throw my Kindle across the room.

Plot Summary

A New Year’s Eve shooting in Central Park brings together a wealthy banking family (the Hamilton-Sweeneys), a gay teacher from rural Georgia, a reporter suffering from writer’s block, two Long Island teenagers, and some misfits from the downtown “punk” scene amidst the decay of 1970’s New York City.

Why I Read It

Because I was curious about the debut novel that received a $2 million advance! And, because it’s been marketed as reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, which is one of my all-time favorite books.

Major Themes

Class, drugs, the punk scene, New York City, urban decay, family dynamics

What I Liked

  • Much of the writing is brilliant. Hallberg picks just the right words to describe something in a way that made me think “yes, that’s exactly how it is.”

Success in America was like Method acting. You were given a single, defined problem to work through, and if you were good enough in your role, you managed to convince yourself of its – the problem’s – significance. Meanwhile, actors who hadn’t made the cut scurried around backstage, tugging at ropes, making sure that when you turned to address the moon, it would be there.

  • The characters are representative of different walks of life (the punk scene, the wealthy corporate world, the media, and a couple regular Joes) and the story is told from these various perspectives, amplifying the tension between the classes in a way that’s reminiscent of The Bonfire of the Vanities.
  • I was intrigued by the Hamilton-Sweeney family storyline, which was rife with upper-crust snobbery, family dysfunction, and sketchy business dealings, and how it would intersect with the Central Park shooting that occurs across the street from their massive apartment, during their annual New Year’s Eve party. This story, alone, could have made a fantastic book that truly is “the next The Bonfire of the Vanities.”
  • For the first 75% of the book, I was all set to rate it 4 stars on Goodreads. Though the story was a bit slow, I enjoyed the (mostly) brilliant writing, was invested in the central plot, and reveled in learning about the characters’ backgrounds. After the halfway point, some of the extraneous plot fell away and the focus settled on the story I was truly interested in.

What I Didn’t Like

  • Though much of the writing was brilliant, Hallberg got pretentious at times…to the detriment of the writing’s flow. I had to use my Kindle dictionary far more than normal and, some teenager prepping for his/her SATs could probably just use this book to study for the verbal section! I don’t mind big vocabulary words, but some of Hallberg’s choices seemed out of place and unnecessary. “Husbanded his cash”…seriously?!

For having so far husbanded his cash pretty well, Mercer rewarded himself with one of the eponymous beverages.

  • Especially in the first half, Hallberg spent an inordinate amount of time focusing on the downtown “punk scene”. Charlie and Sam, two otherwise normal Long Island teens, start hanging out in a shady squat with other punk derelicts doing drugs and listening to music. I frequently tuned out during these endless cycles of music, drugs, and indecipherable psycho-babble about the “movement” and I think they could have been drastically shortened while still setting the scene and connecting to the central plot.
  • Oh, the ending (insert exasperated sigh and eye roll). It dragged on for close to 300 pages and still failed to satisfyingly wrap things up. It felt like Hallberg got so engrossed in all the psycho-babble that he forgot to finish telling the story. I don’t mind open-ended conclusions that make you think of all the possibilities, but this just felt lazy! I remember an old Top Ten Tuesday topic called “Books That You Wanted to Throw Across the Room” and City on Fire‘s ending would have put it firmly atop that list for me.

A Defining Quote

According to the Arbitron ratings he’d last checked in ’73, Zig’s audience had lately more than doubled. Every morning, thens of thousands of masochistic tri-staters were tuning in to hear him rant about the shooting of the unnamed minor in Central Park. Or this other thing, some insider trading case. Or their symbolic link to entropy, to decay.

How do you feel about extremely long books? Do you hold them to a higher standard because of the time you’re devoting to them?

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40 Responses to “How I got Burned by Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire”

  1. JoAnn @ Lakeside Musing

    I was going to ask if you’d have rated the book higher if it had been 350 or 400 pages… then I got to your final question, lol! With the time commitment involved, I definitely expect more of a 900+ page book and obviously this didn’t quite live up to that standard for you.

    Still not sure whether I’ll give this a try…. If I do, it will be an ebook borrowed from the library 😉

    • Harry

      I read it all. It was a good read and a good story, but the ending failed to tie everything together. Some of the main characters (Nicky Chaos, Sewer Girl, D.T. and S.G) go unmentioned. What of these punk’s plight after their plot unravelled? After putting in 900 pages, I felt that this “oversight”, if that’s what it was, left me a bit disappointed. I still give the book a high rating.

  2. Kay

    Yes, I’m less inclined to try it. It’s not really my sort of book anyway, but I was intrigued by the ’70’s time period. I seem to be obsessed with the ’70’s right now. Not sure why. Maybe because I just finished Salem’s Lot and I read it in the ’70’s and those were my ‘growing up’ and college years. Anyway, 900+ pages….plus, I don’t like having to look up words. I feel that I’m a fairly savvy reader and can usually suss out the meaning of a word or phrase, but I dislike ‘having’ to look things up. It sounds like this would put me to sleep if I listened to it.

    Yes, I like JoAnn’s suggestion to borrow it from my library – e-book format. Thanks for giving us the ‘heads up’. 😉

    • admin

      I feel like I’ve got a good vocabulary and rarely have to look up words…so, I was surprised..and glad to see the same comment coming from others! Glad to know I’m not just dense 🙂

    • admin

      I think there was a lot to be excited about…it had so much potential and I love a good chunkster as well. But, yeah, I definitely didn’t think it was worth the time.

  3. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    Congrats for sticking with it. I’m glad your Kindle survived the ending!
    I don’t mind long books at all, but I would probably get annoyed by the pretentious language and the odd vocabulary. Plus I tried to read the sample of it, and it didn’t grab me. So I think this one will not make it onto my TBR list.

    • admin

      I actually really loved the Prologue and still didn’t like the overall book, so I wouldn’t spend time on it if you didn’t like the sample!

  4. Carmen

    Too bad this didn’t live up to your expectations, Sarah. Before I started blogging I didn’t mind reading long books regardless how long it took me to read them, but since blogging I’m mindful of the length because readership decreases the longer it passes without a post, so I now choose books that are 500 pages or less.

    • admin

      You know what..that’s interesting. I still occasionally read chunksters and loved A Little Life earlier this year, but I have started paying more attention to books’ lengths since I started blogging. It must really look enticing for me to give it a go!

  5. Shaina

    Ack. Thanks for such a thorough review, even though it means you had to slog through close to 1000 pages! I’ll likely be giving this one a pass.

    • admin

      Haha! Well…I had to get something out of those 944 pages…I guess a thorough review is it!

  6. Judy

    I have been warned! But I love long books that keep me in someone’s world for days on end. I agree that they kill my books read count and blogging time, but I still read them. I will read this but maybe not until the New Year turns over. Your likes convinced me more than your dislikes but I understand your final decision.

    • admin

      I really love long books as well and one of my favorites of the year is a chunkster. But, this one kind of felt like it should have been closer to 500 pages, whereas the chunksters I love seem like they should be the 700+ pages they are!

  7. carrie

    kudos to you for making it through a book this long. I personally cannot do it. my sister read atlas shrugged a while back and i for the life of me don’t know how she did it. my threshold is usually right around 450-500 pages.

    • admin

      Haha – thanks! I was really excited about this one, which is why I pushed through. Alas… And, I did love Atlas Shrugged…read it years ago!

  8. Amanda

    Your example sentence made me giggle. A bit ridiculous. I am so curious about this one for the same reasons you gave, but I just don’t think I can do it for a book that sounds so meh in the end. I’m sorry you spent all that reading time for a bad ending!

    • admin

      That’s what I thought…was just completely unnecessary and didn’t make the sentence sparkle!

  9. Eva

    Well thanks for reading it so I don’t have to! I was intrigued by the plot, I like the idea of all those worlds intersecting in New York in the 70s and lord knows I’m always up for a murder mystery but 944 pages is obscene. And it sounds like a lot of it could have been edited away to make a stronger novel. I’ve had The Bonfire of the Vanities on my list for a long time so I guess I will just read that!

    • admin

      Ha – you’re very welcome! Happy to take one for the team. And, I’d definitely go for Bonfire over this one!

  10. Diane

    I’m not surprised when I read your review here Sarah. I tried, but couldn’t force myself to keep going after about 200 pages.

  11. Tara @ Running 'N' Reading

    Sarah, I apologize for the delay in commenting on this one; it’s been crazy at work and marathon training explains the rest – ha! This is a really great evaluation of this novel; I definitely felt like we deserved medals for sticking it out and I 100% agree with you that there very well could be a GREAT novel hiding in this rat’s nest. There should be an elite club membership for people who read the entire thing; I’ll work on that. 🙂

    • admin

      What?! Marathon training taking time?! Haha! I think there are 3 of us in the club right now…let’s see if it grows or remains elite!

  12. Kelly

    Ugh, sorry this one was a bust for you! That ending sounds infuriating, especially after such a long lead-up. I think I do expect more from a longer novel…if the author is devoting that much time to laying out a story, it needs to be worth it. (And if it’s not, why did they waste so many extra words on it??) 🙂

    • admin

      I agree – all the words just weren’t necessary and detracted from what was a great story.

  13. Catherine

    While I’m saddened you didn’t like the book, I am glad that our reading wavelength continues to be almost freakishly similar. You are more patient than I was, but I agree that there is great writing in there, just buried under an ego or poor editing.

    I want to nominate you for the Booker prize for being able to summarize the novel so succinctly. 1 sentence and it’s spot-on?! That is some Jedi magic. Well done!

    • admin

      Ha – yep – I’m glad we can still trust the wavelength! And – I struggled with that summary…I almost went with “I have no idea what this book’s truly about”. But, I’ll take your Booker!

  14. Kathy @ Kathy Reads Fiction

    I know this has to be so disappointing for you, especially after investing that much time into so many pages. Unfortunately, your review coincides with a few others for this one. I think I’ll take your advice and skip it. Better luck and on to the next one.

    • admin

      I am disappointed, but it’s ok. I was curious and now those questions are answered – ha!

  15. Sarah R

    Man, do I wish I would have found your blog sooner! I definitely would have skipped this book.

    I just finished it last night, and my major feeling is “Huh?” followed by disappointment. I almost never buy books full price at B&N, but with all the hubbub on this book, I bought the print version. I thought it was worth spending more for the print because of the way the interludes are presented (like you’re actually reading Sam’s magazine for example). Because of the length and because I paid full price, I expected to love it. Instead, I would give it 3 stars. I so agree with your review. Because I didn’t have it on my kindle, I had to have my phone next to me to understand the writing. It was pretentious, like you said, and it made me feel kind of stupid!

    • admin

      Awh – thank you!

      That’s pretty much how I felt. That terrible ending took hundreds of pages…and left me almost angry that I’d wasted my time. And, I liked it well enough through the first 3/4. This book got such a huge marketing push – but I realized most of the “buzz” was pre-release and/or from the big, traditional reviewers. I really didn’t hear much about it in the blogging world…esp once people got their hands on it.

  16. Carol

    I listened to it on CD – 30 CD’s. I told myself I would stop in the beginning if I didn’t like it but it really kept my interest. I thought his writing was great and wish I had it on Kindle so I could look up some of the words. But, I have been reading through reviews because I just couldn’t “get” the ending. I thought maybe I missed something but it sounds like it wasn’t just me, as many didn’t think the ending made sense either.

    • admin

      Oh my gosh – yes! I felt the same way…it was getting 4 stars from me up until about the 75% mark. The ending was completely inexplicable. And I was annoyed it dragged out for 300 pages.

  17. Duck

    I liked your review. And, an hoping to convince you to include some spoilers in your comments. So, Sam was shot by the rat girl because she thought Sam was taking photos of her? Why was this book set with the ending being the big blackout? So much of this book I don’t get. I guess I’m not so smart, after all. Will you explain the last 300 pages to me? Thanks!

  18. Robbie

    Yep! Some good writing and some great evocations of place but there were whole POV characters that didn’t need to be there – looking at you, Jenny Nguyen! And it wasn’t really necessary to rehash scenes just to get multiple characters’ slightly different takes on the same event without much new insight. I bet this author’s next book will be better, hopefully, after he has shed that “I must use every single idea that comes to mind” impulse of the first-timer.


    Plus I’m with you on the ending. The Pulaski/SG adoption (?) is just completely implausible, plus [SERIOUSLY, SPOILERS…..]

    she’s a murderer! No justice for the book’s central mystery/crime after 900 pages?

    • Sarah Dickinson

      This: “I must use every single idea that comes to mind”…is exactly what it felt like! There were some definite high points in there…but they were overshadowed by all the clutter. I’d still love to see a P&L for that book…haha!

  19. Tammy Crabtree

    God help me, the vocabulary choices are killing me. “They would just as lief knife you as say hello.” Lief??? Its like every few like lines, he whipped out the thesaurus to find some archaic word to use.

    • Sarah Dickinson

      Yep – exactly! I remember thinking the exact same thing when he said “husband the money” instead of “save the money.”

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