Garth Risk Hallberg’s ‘City on Fire’: Why Writers Are Obsessed With New York’s Past

If you’re a New Yorker who gets your information from Matt Drudge — and I’m really sorry if that’s the case — then you’re already counting down the days until you’re forced to join the Baseball Furies, the Gramercy Riffs, the Turnbull AC’s, or if you’re really desperate, the Orphans. That’s because, according to Drudge, the Bill de Blasio era will signal nothing short of the end of democracy as we know it in the Big Apple. Warriors, come out to play…

Most of us writerly folks aren’t ready to be boppers and rumble with rival gangs over territory, but at least one among us, Garth Risk Hallberg, could probably use a little of the $2 million he netted from Knopf for his 900-page debut novel, City on Fire, to pay for extra protection when the shit really hits the fan.

Or maybe Hallberg will relish in the chaos that some on the right are sure will take hold immediately after de Blasio is sworn in after 20 years of one-percent-friendly governing by Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg. Hallberg’s novel, after all, is set in the old New York — and by “old,” I mean the “Ford to City: Drop Dead” New York of the ’70s, before the fabulousness of Sex and the City, before everybody wanted to move to Williamsburg, and before you would never think of walking your children through Times Square. I’m excited for Hallberg’s novel because, even though I wasn’t alive yet, that’s the New York that has always fascinated me the most. I love its music, its art, and its culture of individual neighborhoods now buried by ugly glass condos. Although New Yorkers who lived through that era may not look back on it with such fondness, I’m hardly the only one who romanticizes it.

Described as having a plot that revolves “around a central mystery: what exactly is going on behind the locked steel doors of a derelict townhouse in the East Village” and a shooting in Central Park, Hallberg’s book is just the latest (and most dramatically coveted) example of a high-profile work of literary fiction set in the New York of the recent past. Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor took place on Long Island in the mid-1980s; Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints was set in and around the places where straight-edge hardcore kids hung out on the Lower East Side during the same era; and one of this year’s most popular and critically acclaimed novels, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, walks the streets of New York in the same decade when Hallberg’s book is set. In his new book Bleeding Edge, which takes place in Manhattan’s Silicon Alley, even Thomas Pynchon chooses the days around 9/11 over NYC circa now. Writers might live in and even love this city, but more and more often the New York that inspires them is a historic one.

And while fiction writers are escaping the Big Apple of the present through writing stories set in its past, contemporary nonfiction about New York makes this disillusionment more explicit. Think about the rise of the “Goodbye to All That” piece, riffing on Joan Didion’s famous essay about leaving New York, which became so popular over the past few years that it yielded the recent collection edited by Sari Botton, featuring a handful of writers musing on getting out and (in many cases) promising they’re never coming back. There are many exceptions, like Adelle Waldman’s debut The Love Affair’s of Nathaniel P., but a whole lot of contemporary literature about New York is either fiction set in the past or essays about getting the heck out of dodge.

No one embodies this shift more than one of New York’s most famous native writers, Jonathan Lethem. He moved to the other coast to take a teaching job in California, where his nostalgia for his hometown no doubt helped fuel his latest novel, Dissident Gardens, a tour of the city’s radical past that only briefly touches the present. In his fiction, Lethem best represents the way many writers are beginning to feel: they love New York yesterday better than New York today, and they’d happily call somewhere else home.