There is something magical when you arrive in New-York. By car or bus, when suddenly after miles of suburban and industrial blight in New Jersey the pointed Manhattan skyline appears on the horizon. Or when you discover the island’s shape after the plane turns to land at JFK, La Guardia or Newark. Or exiting Penn Station and directly landing on the 8th Avenue sidewalks, looking up to find the sky between the skyscrapers rows.
Arriving in New-York often means taking a new start. This was the fate of millions of immigrants arriving in the United States through Ellis Island under the Statue of Liberty’s benevolent gaze. I also remember this young German with whom, during my first visit to the city, I shared a dorm at the youth hostel close to the 103rd Street, a few blocks from Columbia University and Harlem. He had just landed, had only purchased a one way ticket and was dressing-up formally every morning to go look for a job in travel agencies, dreaming of success in that industry.
« City on Fire » by Garth Risk Hallberg is a novel that is also full of new starts. Even though it takes place at the end of the 70s, a time when New-York seemed mired in decline. This was the punk period, in 1976-77. America had just celebrated its bicentennial, but its first city was drowning: crime, drugs, graffiti’s, filthy streets, entire neighborhoods burning at night, a bankrupt city. « Ford to City: Drop Dead » would the newspapers put in President Ford’s mouth when he refused to bail out the city.
Charlie Weisbarger and Samantha Cicciaro are two teenagers escaping from their decomposed families and suburban boredom in Long Island. They board the train and disembark in Manhattan to discover the punk scene and in particular the Ex Post Facto band that their leader Billy-Three-Sticks just left. The gun shots hitting Samantha in Central Park’s snow on New Year’s Eve are the spark around which the novel’s plot and its characters are weaved.
It’s Mercer Goodman, a young African-American who came up to New-York from Georgia to write a big novel – and also teaches English in a private school for girls- who, as he was waiting for a bus in the snow, is the first to hear Samantha crying for help. Mercer is also William Hamilton-Sweeney’s lover, an artist who is a rebellious heir to one of the most famed financial dynasties in the city. He is also known as Billy-Three-Sticks, Ex Post Facto’s former band leader.
The novel’s climax is the black-out of July 1977, the long power cut that plunged the city into chaos and looting for close to 24 hours. But in Hallberg’s book it is during those hours that the different protagonists get out of their straightjackets and escape from the dead ends towards which they were driving. They find themselves and each other again and start over. In New York, creation is born out of destruction.
Thanks to Valentine Petit for the pictures.