The first thing I need to tell you about this book is that it’s long – 944 pages. That’s not such a bad thing, with winter approaching, hunkering down and losing yourself in a long book is to be recommended. That is – if the time invested in reading so many pages is rewarded and with this much anticipated novel I’m not absolutely convinced it is.
I was drawn to this book by its setting- New York, spanning primarily from the end of 1976 and working towards a big set piece for the city, the night the lights went out – July 13-14th 1977 when a localised total blackout led to looting, arson and panic in the streets.
This, however, is no “disaster” novel. It is very much character led and at the centre is William Hamilton-Sweeney, troubled son of a millionaire businessman, who disappears from family life on the eve of his father’s remarriage and reinvents himself as an artist and as Billy Three Sticks, a musician in underground punk band Ex Post Facto. At the start of the novel William is in a relationship with Mercer, an African-American not long up from Georgia who is working in a girls private school. This mismatched gay couple are strongly characterised. In fact, for me the most successful aspect of this novel is its characterisation. For a work with an epic sweep and ambitious scope the cast of characters is smaller than you would imagine and I know that I have spent a lot of time recently in their company but I do feel they will linger with me when I move on to other (shorter) books.
In the early hours of New Year’s Day an incident occurs in Central Park which will have ramifications for all the characters from the wealthy in the Hamilton-Sweeney offices to the anarchic Post-Humanist punks living their drug-induced lives in a commune where revolution is being plotted. There’s a Police investigation and an intrepid journalist and, importantly, there is the character of New York itself, simmering away as a general air of disgruntlement during the time when punk and disco overlap, where drugs, probably for the first time infiltrates all levels of society and the loss of power over one night will change lives forever.
I wanted this book to be an unqualified success but it isn’t. It has the tendency to suck the reader in and then spit back out. There’s some really engaging writing and a real zest for language. I lost count of the number of new words I had to look up, but there’s also great chunks of frustrating uneventfulness which might suggest overall that the author was not quite ready to guide us through a book of so many words. I did feel that, at times, there’s a great shorter novel waiting to explode from this mammoth one, but thinking about it once completed I am not sure what I would cut. There are occasional interludes away from the plot, including journalistic pieces and fanzines, but these often contain some very good writing and do have a bearing on outcomes.
I do think many readers will get left by the wayside with this novel. The blurb compares it to the TV series “The Wire”, a comparison I cannot fathom apart from its structure. I know that this book will divide critics and it has certainly divided this one reviewer as I am still not totally sure of my opinion of it. However, film rights have been sold and there has been an initial $2 million publishing deal, a six figure deal in the UK where the editor apparently called it “the best American novel I’ve ever read on submission.” Whether this “publishing phenomenon” will sweep this country remains to be seen. For me, it is a bold, ambitious work which is good rather than great and might not live up to the hype being built up around it. I have wavered between the 3 and 4 star rating throughout the reading of it but because of its magnitude; because I think elements of it will remain with me and because of the sense of achievement I am feeling in completing it I am opting for four stars.
The City On Fire will be published in the UK by Jonathan Cape on 22nd October.
Thanks to Netgalley and Penguin (Jonathan Cape) for providing a copy for review.