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Friday, June 3, 2016

Reading City On Fire. Still.

My husband said to me yesterday, "I don't remember you ever taking so long to read a book before."

He was right. I've been meaning to write about it, too. The book is City on Fire, by Garth Risk Hallberg, a great, honking, long historical novel (much like my own) about a whole damned city, more or less, in 1977, in the days leading up to the great July blackout.

Now, what I'm writing is not a review. First of all, I'm not even half-way through it yet. I'm writing about my experience of reading a great long, multiple storyline book--this book. I just want to be clear. 

First, the book is danged heavy. When I put it in my backpack (yes, I usually do carry a backpack, not a purse) it turns the backpack into a powerful weapon. So, a lot of times, I wind up shoving in something a lit-tle smaller. Like War and Peace. (Just kidding.) 

Second, the book's Point of View characters are (duh) mostly New Yorkers. Or maybe from Lon-g Island. And because this is the 1970's, and the focus is on the budding rock world, there is a heavy (yes) focus on drug use and heavy rock music. And, then, of course, because this is a man's book--after all, it has mostly male Point of View protagonists and one of the main females winds up a) shot, b) on life-support in a hospital, and c) mostly (so far, discussed by everyone around her (father, lover, want-to-be lover) rather than being seen through her own eyes, well, I can understand how women and the literary world would have a hard time taking this novel seriously. (Just kidding. We all know it's only when the opposite is true that people have a hard taking a novel seriously.) 

I have lived in New York City, but you will never take the Midwesterner from my outlook. When I lived in the city, I would spend my day leaving it, on the bus--going to Tappan (site of Major John Andre's capture and hanging) or West Point (site of, well, West Point) or Big Bear, a national park near West Point, or Nyack, one-time home of Charles McArthur (Front Page) and Helen Hayes. (I loved Nyack. And if you live there and you're rich, you can take your own boat into New York City!)

For the most part, my taste in music ends somewhere around the 1940's, although I am always interested in melodic, intelligent stuff with insightful lyrics. (Hamilton, anyone?) Perhaps because I hate loud, repetitive head-banging stuff, I've only ever been to one rock performance. 

And perhaps because of that, and because I am wildly rebellious, I have never a) used illegal drugs b) abused any kind of drug c) been drunk or d) gotten a tattoo like all the other people who are (supposedly) rebelling. Listen, when I want to be wild, I'm going to rebel in my own original way, not by following the supposedly maverick herd. (What a great oxymoron that is--a maverick herd.) 

Also, I started college waaay too young, which meant I was more clear-eyed than most when I first witnessed empty-eyed people racing around trying to fill their inner hungers via crazy sex and drugs. They just looked so lonely. Desperately, miserably lonely and I did not want to join them. I wanted, even then, to weigh ethics, to learn how to listen, to be kind, to be assertive, to stick up for myself and for others, and to create positive change. 

So, it's no surprise that the character about whom I most care is Mercer Goodman, a small-town guy with basically small-town values and a strong moral compass--who also happens to be black, gay and Southern, three things I am not. (Isn't that one of the delights of literature that he is the most me of all the characters I have met so far?)

I have struggled to relate to both Risk Hallberg's major female characters, though only one has been our Point of View person, and that briefly. (We do spend a few paltry pages in the mind of her Sleeping Beauty, Samantha Ciccaro) I do not care to relate to Keith, the well-to-do cheater married to Regan Hamilton-Sweeney, one of the book's few women, while having an affair with another. For pages, we watch Keith decide to dive into a world bereft of ethics, decide to hide his soul from his wife, and finally, decide to sell his soul to someone he knows instinctively to be devilish. All of these are so casually decided that they are not interesting to me. 

I do like another white, male, gay character, William Hamilton-Sweeney, a musician/painter/scion of a billionaire family who becomes the boyfriend of Mercer, (the hero of the novel as far as I am concerned, though not, I think, according to the author.) William is not my favorite hang-out buddy, but he's interesting, and I enjoyed the letter from his grandfather to his father, though I did not believe such a man would ever write such a letter. 

It's just that the main plot has Samantha Ciccaro as a female at risk--yes, a kind of sleeping beauty, (safely unconscious while the plot revolves around her) and the main POV character is a teenaged boy (Charlie) with the hots for said female, who met before she becomes both the victim of a terrible crime and the sleeping beauty. I love reading things from a teenaged male POV, but I sure get tired of females at risk, and God help me--of sleeping beauties. I wish--I just wish there were either more women in the novel with whom I can relate, or at least that there was more of the black, male, gay guy from Altana, GA, who I could come to care deeply about. 

Also, because I am an actress, I know the difference in internal voices. So many of these inner thoughts sound so much the same--dense, swift, erudite, passionate, observant. It makes me long for Colum McCann's Let The Great World Spin, another New York City novel, where every voice is drastically, brilliantly, different. 

Still, it's two months later, and I am still reading this heavy book. Which says a great deal about Mr. Risk Hallberg's writing, and, I hope, speaks hopefully for mine, once it is published. 

More to come. . .

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