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City on Fire

New York City, 1976. Meet Regan and William Hamilton-Sweeney, estranged heirs to one of the city’s great fortunes; Keith and Mercer, the men who, for better or worse, love them; Charlie and Samantha, two suburban teenagers seduced by downtown’s punk scene; an obsessive magazine reporter and his idealistic neighbor—and the detective trying to figure out what any of them have to do with a shooting in Central Park on New Year’s Eve. 

When the blackout of July 13, 1977, plunges this world into darkness, each of these lives will be changed forever. City on Fire is an unforgettable novel about love and betrayal and forgiveness, about art and truth and rock ’n’ roll: about what people need from each other in order to live—and about what makes the living worth doing in the first place.​

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“A symphonic epic…big, stunning…novel of head-snapping ambition and heart-stopping power [that] attests to its young author’s boundless and unflagging talents.”

—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

FOR THE PROPHET CHARLIE WEISBARGER, that would be the year punk started: 1976. Later, as he learned more, it would seem like other years had a claim on the title, 1974, 1975, late Stooges, early Ramones, but that spring-into-summer was when the culture first made itself known to him. On Fridays and Saturdays and sometimes Sundays, he would pick Sam up at her house or, if she’d stayed out the night before, meet her in the Village. They would goof around, shoplifting from drugstores, magic-markering song lyrics on the boards surrounding demolition sites, and collecting discreet photos of the ratty kids you saw more and more on the streets of Manhattan, down where the grid went crooked, the ragged and dispofuckingsessed. Often in her bag she had a bottle from the liquor cabinet back home—it had been her mom’s; her dad’s drink of choice was beer—and when she found out Charlie couldn’t smoke grass on account of his asthma, she proved adept at coming up with airplane glue and Quaaludes and painkillers, the greens and the blues. These latter made time stretch; he had memories of looking up from stoops they’d plopped down on, smiling at the various freaks who paraded by. The City comforted him in a way the Island never really could, because it was impossible, just statistically, for him to be the freakiest person here. Once, he squatted with her near the entrance of a Carvel store watching strange hats, ripped pants, cosmic boots go marching by, with chocolate ice cream running down his fingers like mud. (His left hand felt like it belonged to someone else—occasionally handy in private, but awkward most of the rest of the time.) A passing homosexual in tiny shorts clucked and shook his head at the pair of them, the poor lost children, and Charlie couldn’t help making a wisecrack, as if Mickey Sullivan was still around. But he backpedaled when Sam, citing the principle of freak solidarity, called him on it. “I meant it as like a tribute,” he said. “The way certain kinds of blasphemy refer to God.”

     “You’re not as dumb as you look, are you?” she teased him, and he could feel a bubble of warm liquor expanding and rising in his head.

     “You’re the one who skipped a year, College Girl.”

     “No, I’m a lot of things, but I’m not smart like you, Charlie. You’re like the smartest dimwit I know.”

      Then came the endless hours at that luncheonette of hers, trying to sober up on coffee before the drive home. She told him more about how her mom had taken off with a yoga instructor, and he talked a little bit about his adoption, and his dad.

      Mostly, though, they talked about music. Punk was a jealous god, who could not abide the existence of other musics besides itself, so Charlie didn’t dare tell Sam about his enduring affection for Honky Château, but having steeped himself in photostatted ’zines, he could now talk knowledgeably about Radio Birdman and Wayne County and the Hunger Artists and argue the relative merits of Ex Post Facto and Patti Smith. In private, he thought Horses might be the greatest album ever made; a song called “Birdland” he must have listened to a thousand times. Out loud, though, he agreed with her that the demise of the bassist, and subsequently of the band, made Ex Post Facto’s Brass Tactics the more valuable document. She’d dubbed it for him on eight-track, and they sat in the car near the West Side Highway coming down off glue and soaking in the majesty of the music. He cranked the volume as high as it would go, because he wouldn’t be able to give it the decibels it deserved at home; his mom was a master of defeating the purpose. That whole time he was hanging out with Sam, she thought he was at therapy or at the beach with Shel Goldbarth, or seeing Jaws three times in a row at the Hempstead Triplex. Consequently, the latest he could manage to stay out was his ten o’clock curfew. Just when Sam was getting ready to head to the Sea of Clouds or CBGB, he’d be exiled again to Long Island. He would stop at a gas station to rub soap on his shirt to cover the smell of Sam’s cigarettes and to gargle away the pasty aftertaste of pills with the travel-sized bottle of mouthwash he carried. Mom never mentioned how clean he smelled; she was usually in bed when he got home anyway. He suspected she was just relieved he’d found the friends he seemed to be spending so much time with, per Dr. Altschul’s “prescription.”

      Only one thing about it bothered him, really: What was in it for Sam? She had this whole other p.m. life in which Charlie couldn’t participate, except to drag out of her on the phone the next day every ecstatic detail of whatever show she’d been to. She could have spent the days, too, hanging out with her cooler friends, Sol Grungy and the others. And yet, when Charlie was around, those long afternoons, it was just him and her. He wasn’t a total moron; he knew she liked having the Weisbarger family wagon at her disposal. But was that really why she was spending so much time with him? Or did she, like . . . like him, or something?

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