Reading Matters

Garth Hallberg’s ‘City on Fire’

Repeat after me: Garth Risk Hallberg. Garth Risk Hallberg.

Haven’t heard of him? You will. His novel, “City on Fire” (Knopf, $30) got a $2 million advance in a furious bidding war in 2013 when he was 34. It’s now nudging its way up the best-seller list. (Hollywood, of course, has already optioned it.)

And he’s from Greenville, where his dad, the late William Hallberg, taught for 30 years at East Carolina and was himself a novelist (“The Rub of the Green”), blurbed by none other than the late Walker Percy.

Here’s what I love about this story. Growing up, Hallberg considered himself to be the state’s only beatnik. When he was 16, his mother sent him to a week-long poetry workshop at Duke. The workshop didn’t change his inherent sensibilities, but there he found other “misfit nerds.”

What a difference it can make as you slog your way through the rough currents of adolescence to find your own tribe.

So is the seven-years-in-the-making, 2-pound, 927-page novel about New York City in the mid-1970s any good?

Most of what I’ve read about it points to its energy and power. Says Vogue: “Interspersed with zines, diary entries, and newspaper articles, ‘City on Fire’ is the kind of exuberant, Zeitgeisty New York novel, like ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities,’ ‘The Emperor’s Children,’ or ‘The Goldfinch,’ that you’ll either love, hate, or pretend to have read.”

“...a big, stunning first novel,” says the New York Times, and, “Despite being overstuffed, it’s a novel of head-snapping ambition and heart-stopping power – a novel that attests to its young author’s boundless and unflagging talents.”

I’m more interested in the Boy Wonder himself, who lives in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill with wife Elise and two young sons.

He earned his B.A. at Washington University in St. Louis. For his M.F.A. at New York University, he studied with the novelist Brian Morton and the late E.L. Doctorow. “... he had no interest in being told how terrific he was,” Morton told Vogue. “What he was interested in was what he could do to improve.” Take note, all ye wannabe writers.

Hallberg acknowledges that “City on Fire” was influenced by the TV series “The Wire,” whose five seasons each focused on a different stratum of life in Baltimore.

By the way, he wrote his drafts on graph paper because “there’s something pleasurable about filling the boxes,” he told Vulture.

OK. That tells me a lot about the guy: compulsive, obsessive, eccentric – all the essential ingredients.

Dannye: dpowell@charlotteobserver.com

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