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Authors: Garth Risk Hallberg

City on Fire

Hallberg, Garth Risk.


City on fire / by Garth Risk Hallberg. — First edition.


pages ; cm


ISBN 978-0-385-35377-9 (hardcover : alk. paper) — ISBN 978-0-385-35378-6 (eBook)






Title Page



BOOK I We Have Met the Enemy, and He Is Us

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15
INTERLUDE The Family Business

BOOK II Scenes from Private Life

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

INTERLUDE The Fireworkers, PART 1

BOOK III Liberty Heights

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

INTERLUDE The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Anyone Now Living

BOOK IV Monads

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Chapter 66

Chapter 67

Chapter 68

Chapter 69

Chapter 70
INTERLUDE Bridge and Tunnel

BOOK V The Demon Brother

Chapter 71

Chapter 72

Chapter 73

Chapter 74

Chapter 75

Chapter 76

Chapter 77

Chapter 78

Chapter 79

Chapter 80

Chapter 81

Chapter 82

Chapter 83

Chapter 84

Chapter 85

Chapter 86

INTERLUDE “Evidence”

BOOK VI Three Kinds of Despair

Chapter 87

Chapter 88

Chapter 89

INTERLUDE The Fireworkers, PART 2

BOOK VII In the Dark

Chapter 90

Chapter 91

Chapter 92

Chapter 93

Chapter 94


On Sources

Permissions Acknowledgments

Illustrations Credits

A Note about the Author


INTERLUDE The Family Business

INTERLUDE The Fireworkers, PART 1

INTERLUDE The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Anyone Now Living

INTERLUDE Bridge and Tunnel

INTERLUDE “Evidence”

INTERLUDE The Fireworkers, PART 2


IN NEW YORK, you can get anything delivered. Such, anyway, is the principle I’m operating on. It’s the middle of summer, the middle of life. I’m in an otherwise deserted apartment on West Sixteenth Street, listening to the placid hum of the fridge in the next room, and though it contains only a mesozoic half-stick of butter my hosts left behind when they took off for the shore, in forty minutes I can be eating more or less whatever I can imagine wanting. When I was a young man—younger, I should say—you could even order in drugs. Business cards stamped with a 212 number and that lonesome word, delivery, or, more usually, some bullshit about therapeutic massage. I can’t believe I ever forgot this.


Then again, it’s a different city now, or people want different things. The bushes that screened hand-to-hand transactions in Union Square are gone, along with the payphones you’d use to dial your dealer. Yesterday afternoon, when I walked over there for a break, modern dancers were making a slo-mo commotion beneath the revitalized trees. Families sat orderly on blankets, in wine-colored light. I keep seeing this stuff everywhere, public art hard to distinguish from public life, polka-dot cars idling by on Canal, newsstands ribboned like gifts. As if dreams themselves could be laid out like options on the menu of available experience. Oddly, though, what this rationalizing of every last desire tends to do, the muchness of this current city’s muchness, is remind you that what you really hunger for is nothing you’re going to find out there.

What I’ve personally been hungering for, since I arrived six weeks ago, is for my head to feel a certain way. At the time, I couldn’t have put the feeling into words, but now I think it is something like the sense that things might still at any moment change.

I was a native son once—jumper of turnstiles, dumpster diver, crasher on strange roofs downtown—and this feeling was the ground-note of my life. These days, when it comes, it is only in flashes. Still, I’ve agreed to house-sit this apartment through September, hoping that will be enough. It’s shaped like a stackable block from a primitive video game: bedroom and parlor up front, then dining area and master bedroom, the kitchen coming off like a tail. As I wrestle at the dining table with these prefatory remarks, twilight is deepening outside high windows, making the ashtrays and documents heaped before me seem like someone else’s.

By far my favorite spot, though, is back past the kitchen and through a side door—a porch, on stilts so high this might as well be Nantucket. Timbers of park-bench green, and below, a carpet of leaves from two spindly gingkos. “Courtyard” is the word I keep wanting to use, though “airshaft” might also work; tall apartment houses wall in the space so no one else can reach it. The white bricks across the way are flaking, and on evenings when I’m ready to give up on my project altogether, I come out instead to watch the light climb and soften as the sun descends another rainless sky. I let my phone tremble in my pocket and watch the shadows of branches reach toward that blue distance across which a contrail, fattening, drifts. The sirens and traffic noises and radios floating over from the avenues are like the memories of sirens and traffic noises and radios. Behind the windows of other apartments, TVs come on, but no one bothers to draw the blinds. And I start to feel once more that the lines that have boxed in my life—between past and present, outside and in—are dissolving. That I may yet myself be delivered.

There’s nothing in this courtyard, after all, that wasn’t here in 1977; maybe it’s not this year but that one, and everything that follows is still to come. Maybe a Molotov cocktail is streaking through the dark, maybe a magazine journalist is racing through a graveyard; maybe the fireworker’s daughter remains perched on a snow-covered bench, keeping her lonely vigil. For if the evidence points to anything, it’s that there is no one unitary City. Or if there is, it’s the sum of thousands of variations, all jockeying for the same spot. This may be wishful thinking; still, I can’t help imagining that the points of contact between this place and my own lost city healed incompletely, left the scars I’m feeling for when I send my head up the fire escapes and toward the blue square of freedom beyond. And you out there: Aren’t you somehow right here with me? I mean, who doesn’t still dream of a world other than this one? Who among us—if it means letting go of the insanity, the mystery, the totally useless beauty of the million once-possible New Yorks—is ready even now to give up hope?




[ DECEMBER 1976–JANUARY 1977 ]

Life in the hive puckered up my night;

the kiss of death, the embrace of life.


“Marquee Moon”




A CHRISTMAS TREE was coming up Eleventh Avenue. Or rather, was trying to come; having tangled itself in a shopping cart someone had abandoned in the crosswalk, it shuddered and bristled and heaved, on the verge of bursting into flame. Or so it seemed to Mercer Goodman as he struggled to salvage the tree’s crown from the battered mesh of the cart. Everything these days was on the verge. Across the street, char-marks marred the loading dock where local bedlamites built fires at night. The hookers who sunned themselves there by day were watching now through dimestore shades, and for a second Mercer was acutely aware of how he must appear: a corduroyed and bespectacled brother doing his best to backpedal, while at the far end of the tree, a bedheaded whiteboy in a motorcycle jacket tried to yank the trunk forward and to hell with the shopping cart. Then the signal switched from DON’T WALK to WALK, and miraculously, through some combination of push-me and pull-you, they were free again.

“I know you’re annoyed,” Mercer said, “but could you try not to flounce?”

“Was I flouncing?” William asked.

“You’re drawing stares.”

As friends or even neighbors, they were an unlikely pair, which may have been why the man who ran the Boy Scout tree lot by the Lincoln Tunnel on-ramp had been so hesitant to touch their cash. It was also why Mercer could never have invited William home to meet his family—and thus why they were having to celebrate Christmas on their own. You knew it just to look at them, the doughy brown bourgeois, the wiry pale punk: What could possibly have yoked these two together, besides the occult power of sex?

It was William who’d chosen the biggest tree left on the lot. Mercer had urged him to consider the already severe overcrowding of the apartment, not to mention the half-dozen blocks between here and there, but this was William’s way of punishing him for wanting a tree in the first place. He’d peeled two tens from the roll he kept in his pocket and announced sardonically, and loud enough for the tree guy to hear, I’ll take bottom. Now, between fogged breaths, he added, “You know … Jesus would’ve cast us both into the fiery pit. That’s in … Leviticus somewhere, I think. I don’t see the point of a Messiah who sends you to hell.” Wrong Testament, Mercer might have objected, besides which we haven’t sinned together in weeks, but it was imperative not to take the bait. The Scoutmaster was only a hundred yards back, the end of a trail of needles.

Gradually, the blocks depopulated. Hell’s Kitchen at this hour was mostly rubbled lots and burnt-out auto chassis and the occasional drifting squeegee man. It was like a bomb had gone off, leaving only outcasts, which must have been the neighborhood’s major selling point for William Hamilton-Sweeney, circa the late ’60s. Actually, a bomb had gone off, a few years before Mercer moved in. A group with one of those gnarly acronyms he could never remember had blown up a truck outside the last working factory, making way for more rattletrap lofts. Their own building, in a previous life, had manufactured Knickerbocker-brand breathmints. In some ways, little had changed: the conversion from commercial to residential had been slapdash, probably illegal, and had left a powdered industrial residue impacted between the floorboards. No matter how you scrubbed, a hint of cloying peppermint remained.

The freight elevator being broken again, or still, it took half an hour to get the tree up five flights of stairs. Sap got all over William’s jacket. His canvases had migrated to his studio up in the Bronx, but somehow the only space for the tree was in front of the living area’s window, where its branches blocked the sun. Mercer, anticipating this, had laid in provisions to cheer things up: lights to tack to the wall, a tree skirt, a carton of nonalcoholic eggnog. He set them out on the counter, but William just sulked on the futon, eating gumdrops from a bowl, with his cat, Eartha K., perched smugly on his chest. “At least you didn’t buy a crèche,” he said. It stung in part because Mercer was at that moment rooting under the sink for the wiseman figurines Mama had enclosed with her care package.

What he found there instead was the mail pile, which he could have sworn he’d left sitting out in plain view on the radiator this morning. Usually, Mercer wouldn’t have stood for it—he couldn’t walk by one of Eartha’s furballs without reaching for the dustpan—but a certain unopened envelope had been festering there for a week among the second and third notices from the Americard Family of Credit Cards, redundancy sic, and he’d hoped today might be the day William finally awoke to its presence. He reshuffled the pile again so that the envelope was on top. He dropped it back onto the radiator. But his lover was already getting up to splash ’nog over the clump of green gumdrops, like some futuristic cereal product. “Breakfast of champions,” he said.

THE THING WAS, William had a kind of genius for not noticing what he didn’t want to notice. Another handy example: today, Christmas Eve 1976, marked the eighteen-month anniversary of Mercer’s arrival in New York from the little town of Altana, Georgia. Oh, I know Atlanta, people used to assure him, with cheery condescension. No, he would correct them—Al-tan-a—but eventually he stopped bothering. Simplicity was easier than precision. As far as anyone back home knew, he’d gone north to teach sophomore English at the Wenceslas-Mockingbird School for Girls in Greenwich Village. Underneath that, of course, there’d been his searing ambition to write the Great American Novel (still searing now, though for different reasons). And underneath that … well, the simplest way to put it would have been that he’d met someone.

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