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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Thursday, January 21, 2016

What we learn from the back stories in City on Fire

Garth Risk Hallberg moves along in section 2 of City on Fire with the back stories of some of the major and some of the peripheral characters. Does he need to unload all this material? Maybe not, but each is well written and there may be payoffs down the line as further elements of the narrative emerge. The strongest of the back stories - each could almost stand alone as a short story, I think - is probably that of William, the nyc artist and heir in waiting to a large Wall Street fortune. We see in this story the formation of his band, ex post facto, which is the vortex that all of the characters get drawn into and within which their lives collide, and, most impressively, we see how he gets lured into the world of serious Rx, culminating in his first hit of heroin - a rather astonishing passage. Personally, I have no way to vouch for its authenticity but it's a frighteningly convincing account of the lure and danger of the drug - I'll take GRH's word for it, without knowing anything about his experience, either. The Mercer back story - he's the homosexual black man from the Deep South who comes to nyc to find himself or maybe to free himself - taking a job teaching English at an upper-crust all-girls day school - is more conventional and out of the box, doesn't really give me any deep new insight into this character but on the other hand he was by far the dominant character in the first section of the novel so I know him more by his actions and interactions and maybe didn't need so much background on him. Others: Keith, recently separated from Regan (William's sister), another heir to the fortune (and a mother of one of Mercer's students) - is he really so important to overall narrative? I don't see it yet. Charlie: a witness to the shooting of the young girl, his friend, in Central Park and a likely suspect though this has not yet emerged - GRH does nice job delineating his adolescent struggles as a boy adopted into a Jewish family but always feeling a bit of an outsider, and then thrown into a depression when his mother dies and father withdraws - this chapter builds sympathy and compassion for a young man likely to feel the sting of fortune in later sections of this long narrative.

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