In the highly unlikely event that Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire has trouble attracting blurbs, Knopf, which bought the debut novel last month for nearly $2 million, could always solicit them from the editors who lost the auction. “If you love watching The Wire, you’ll love reading this book … He can do it all,” raves Atavist Books’ Frances Coady. “I literally gasped on the subway, 800 pages into it,” says Ecco Press’s Lee Boudreaux. Viking’s Allison Lorentzen found it “so emotionally immersive and compelling that I was willing to drop everything in my life to read it!”
The unstinting praise of underbidders is almost as rare, in these cost-slimming times, as a multimillion-dollar advance for a 35-year-old freelance critic and first-time novelist. Hallberg met his agent, the even-younger Chris Parris-Lamb, last year at a writer’s wedding and promptly sent him a 1,000-page manuscript he’d been working on for five years. The agent sent the slightly slimmed novel out in late October, and two days later, Hallberg had a deal—not with a publisher but with movie producer Scott Rudin. Which accelerated New York’s editors’ speed-reading—30-plus hours that they claim to have enjoyed immensely.
Over the next two weeks, editors got to meet Hallberg and were impressed by his modesty, though in this case they were the ones desperate to impress—seven of the ten most aggressive bidders on the book are 36 or under, a Young Guard with the apparent newfound authority to gamble seven figures of house money. That fact itself should be cause for industry optimism. One of them even sent, as part of his pitch, a zine (the novel contains one).
So what was the big deal? “There are these pieces of art that, when you grow up in a little town far away, make you curious about New York, pull you there,” says Lorentzen, who is from Massachusetts. “City on Fire captured a lot of that feeling.” “Like The Bonfire of the Vanities, it’s a great portrait of New York that the rest of the country will respond to,” says Harper editor Barry Harbaugh. “I’m from Indiana, and I think that has something to do with its commercial appeal. It feels like a big book about New York for people in Kansas.”