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cityonfire“Big as life.” That’s the kind of novel that Georgia native Mercer hopes to write when he moves to New York in the mid-1970s to teach at a girls’ prep school. But Mercer is distracted by the bright lights, big city, and especially by his boyfriend, William Hamilton-Sweeney, who prefers art, punk music and heroin to his wealthy uptown family’s financial empire. No wonder Mercer, already struggling with his identity as a gay black Southerner, is overwhelmed by the rich pageant stretching from the East Village to the Upper West Side. “In his head, the book kept growing in length and complexity, almost as if it had taken on the burden of supplanting real life, rather than evoking it.”

Garth Risk Hallberg evokes the heck out of real life in his ambitious doorstop of a novel, City on Fire (Knopf, digital galley). It has length (900 plus pages), complexity (dozens of intersecting characters), extras (photos, documents, coffee-stained manuscript) and a youthful exuberance that doesn’t know when to stop. So, yes, it’s digressive, excessive, over-the-top, and also sort-of-amazing. Hallberg is only 36 and yet he nails the gritty, glittering milieu like a modern-day Dickens with some Richard Price thrown in. His book made me remember what a rush New York was back then. I found myself  humming Patti Smith’s “Because the Night” while I was reading; now it’s an earworm I don’t regret.

Although City on Fire has flashbacks and flash forwards, it begins in December 1976 and continues through mid-July of ’77, culminating in the infamous blackout after a lightning strike brought down the city’s electric grid. The blackout comes across as almost apocalyptic in the novel, but it’s also where Hallberg brings together the many plotlines and characters spiraling out from the shooting of Long Island teenager Samantha in Central Park on New Year’s Eve. Mercer finds her after coming from a ritzy Hamilton-Sweeney party he went to without William and where he meets William’s estranged sister Regan for the first time. She and her husband Keith have recently separated and she’s moved to Brooklyn with their two kids. It turns out that Keith knows Sam, now lying in a coma in a hospital, while a detective grills Mercer at the police station and Sam’s pal, awkward asthmatic Charlie, searches for her friends from a punk band headed by the anarchist Nicky Chaos, who knows William as drummer Billy Three-Sticks.

Got that? Because there are many, many more characters with overlapping stories and lives, like Sam’s father, who oversees a family fireworks business, and the magazine writer, who profiles the father and knows the detective and lives next to the gallery assistant who works for the dealer who was once William’s mentor. And so on. You may remember the old TV drama tagline: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” Hallberg would like to tell a million or more with few degrees of separation.

Happily, Hallberg can really write in a take-no-prisoners, eat-my-dust style, and my eyes only glazed while reading some of Nicky Chaos’ rants or trying to decipher Sam’s zine writings. Sure the book could be shorter. Possibly it would be better, and more people would read it. Still, New York, New York. The good old bad old ’70s. Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll. What a rush.

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My parents are from the same small town in South Carolina about 40 miles west of Charleston, and when I was growing up my grandmothers lived catty-corner a block apart. My cousins and I could unlatch Nanny’s back gate and sprint across a small field that belonged to the Coolers (more kin) and end up at Grandmother’s back screen door in about three minutes. It was very convenient, as was the library, the school, the park, the Baptist and Methodist churches, and everything “up the street,” which is what the grandmothers called downtown.

Twenty-five years later, East Washington Street is still one-way, but the dime store, the weekly newspaper office, the jewelers, and all the clothes and shoe stores have either closed or relocated out near the highway. But downtown Walterboro is thriving, with more than a dozen antique stores filling the old brick storefronts between the courthouse and the post office. The town has reinvented itself as “the gateway to the Lowcountry,” and tourists flock to the S.C. Artisans Center in a historic house. The Rice Festival was this past weekend, and a big antiques festival is slated for mid-month.

I couldn’t help but think of Walterboro while reading Timothy Schaffert’s offbeat charmer, The Coffins of Little Hope, which is set in small-town Nebraska. Octagenerian Essie Myles, the obituary writer for the local County Paragraph since age 14, looks with dismay at a  nearby town and birthplace of a once-popular author, where “benefactors were buying up all the properties, restoring them, filling them with antiquities, as if they were carving Pompeii from its ashes.”

Essie’s hometown has its claims to fame as well, thanks largely to the little family newspaper run by her grandson Doc. Its printing plant has been chosen to secretly publish the 11th and final installment in the best-selling series of Miranda-and-Desiree YA novels, which sound like something Edward Gorey might have concocted. Readers across the country eagerly speculate about the last adventures of the two sisters living at Rothgutt’s Asylum for Misguided Girls.

Essie’s obits, which she writes as S Myles, also have a cult following. But readers from all over subscribe to the folksy County Paragraph for news of Lenore, a little girl who has been reported missing by her mother Daisy, supposedly abducted by her sometimes lover, a photographer pilot named Elvis.

It is a fantastic story in every sense of the word because it may or may not be true. But Essie knows that “the legend of Lenore, if carefully composed, would save our town from a quaint decline into barbershop quartets and tax-supported ice cream parlors.”

The Coffins of Little Hope — the title is itself a story — begins with Essie introducing herself and explaining how Daisy summons her to the farmhouse to write an obituary for Lenore long after anyone is waiting for word of her death. She is either hoax or tragedy. But her mystery is part of the town’s mythology, so much so that it even considers changing its name, “we would live live in the town of Lenore.”

Incidentally, I love that Schaffert chose that name, with its echoes of Poe’s poem, as well as “The Raven,” lost Lenore, nevermore, etc. It’s typical of his layered tale’s wit, its realistically quirky characters — I haven’t even mentioned Essie’s teen-aged great-grandaughter, Tiff, who coins the term “Lenoreans,” or Doc’s magic tricks, or the reclusive author Wilton Muscatine, a fan of Essie’s obits.

Essie wonders who will write her obit. “Is it so much to want the last sentence of my obit to be written by someone of genius? I want my obituary to win awards, to be published in textbooks. . .And when the writer of my obituary dies, I want her obituary to mention mine.”

Essie, it’s not her but a him. Meet Timothy Schaffert.

Open Book: I read an advance digital galley of The Coffins of Little Hope (Unbridled Books) through NetGalley. But it’s a keeper, so I bought the e-book for my nook.

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