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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Reading City On Fire, Chapter By Chapter, or One Long Novel Deserves Another.

So one kid asked me to read their favorite novel. I agreed. I did not realize that this meant I was stuck with reading the thirteen novels in the series. 

Look, they're fine books. It's not the author's fault that I'm not a pre-teenager, that I rear up when, in book five and six, the hero suddenly is a gifted lutenist/singer--(the plot revolves around his pretending to be a jongleur.) Or that the hero's teacher suddenly turns out to be the identical twin brother of a neighboring king. (Book Eight) Gee, I wonder how that will play out? 

But I've caught a break. We don't own book nine. And so, I've decided to dive into CITY ON FIRE, a book that is longer than my novel, THE COLOR OF SAFETY, the one I am currently querying. And so, I thought, perhaps with such a loooong book, I would write about the actual experience of reading it. 

CITY ON FIRE, for those who don't know it, is a first novel that is Literature's current darling. I can see why, as I read its elegiac prologue through the first chapter. The writing has extraordinary depth and richness without feeling coy or clever. 

An example, near the beginning of chapter one, with characters named Mercer and William. You just knew it to look at them, the dough brown bourgeois, the wiry pale punk: What could possibly have yoked these two together besides the occult power of sex?

That lovely, perfect metaphor--the occult power of sex. Oh, yeah. 

Alvin Baltrop's Friends (The Piers) 1977
I'm also impressed with Risk Hallberg's choice of subject: New York City in the late 1970's, more or less at the base of the city's downward slide and just before the AIDS epidemic slammed into town. Honestly, if you're going to write a super long novel and wish to have it taken on by an agent and then bought by an editor, you could do worse than set it in New York City and include a prominent gay story-line, with a black character in tweeds, no less, though I get the impression from reviews that Risk Hallberg sticks every single person in New York's storyline into the novel, which is why I am so damned excited to read it. 

And oh, I hope mine is as effective--Los Angeles over the last century, including some exploration of early film days, but through a lens of being the outsider, the "exotic," the minority, whether that minority is Jewish, African-American or Asian. 

So--back to CITY ON FIRE. We're immediately plunged into the lives of Mercer (the brown guy) and William (pale, flouncey and one of those Hamilton-Sweeneys, who "waltzed around 125th Street--i.e. Harlem--as if he owned the place,) as well as their cat, Eartha K.

Iraqi mixed marriag
Story, story, story, this is what makes us rich as human beings, our extraordinary stories. The Somali family just up the street, recently out of a Kenyan refugee camp, the Iraqi husband and wife from the Seder, though she is Kurd, not Iraqi. The white, Southern gay author I know who translates his experiences into the lives of black, Southern women. The neighbor from Germany worrying how the "older people back home," are relating to the flood of immigrants--"They are far more comfortable with a right wing identity." The family we know with one kid developmentally disabled, one shifting genders, and the oldest recovering from an operable brain tumor. The kid struggling with crippling anxiety. The teacher who cares so passionately about his teaching that he spends much of his money on his classroom. The one-armed dad who just delivered his slightly premie newborn in 15 degrees below, standing outside a car door while his wife pushed. (These are all true, and all people I have met recently or know very well.) 

When my own life is challenging and I want a break, I dive into a flow of other's stories. I write them. I read them. I am looking forward to moving into chapter two and learning the other stories in Risk Hallberg's CITY ON FIRE. 

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