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A Field Guide to the North American Family by Garth Risk Hallberg, review: City on Fire author's dreamy novella deserves its reissue

Like his 900-page epic ‘City on Fire’, this earlier work shows a fascination with families of different stripes

Alasdair Lees
Wednesday 22 November 2017 15:50 GMT
A Field Guide to the North American Family is the first fictional work of Garth Risk Hallberg
A Field Guide to the North American Family is the first fictional work of Garth Risk Hallberg

The young New York writer Garth Risk Hallberg pulled off a major coup in 2015. The film rights to his novel, City on Fire, were picked up by the Oscar-winning Hollywood producer Scott Rudin for nearly $2m before he’d even signed a book deal. City on Fire, set in and around Manhattan’s punk scene in the mid-70s, was an overnight bestseller that turned Hallberg into the most hyped writer of the year.

More astonishing, the novel itself, clocking in at just over 900 pages, is a work of genuine brilliance, Hallberg’s relentless gifts gleaming off every page. Following a cast of characters from various echelons of New York society, the story spins out from a death in Central Park into a transcendent aria of the metropolis.

A Field Guide to the North American Family, Hallberg’s first work of fiction, is now being reissued on the back of City on Fire’s success. City on Fire is Dickensian in scope and Joycean in its verbal inventiveness – a lexical high-wire act; A Field Guide... , focusing on two modern-day middle class families in the Long Island suburbs, is a svelte novella made up of 63 interlaced vignettes, which runs to just over 120 pages. The fracturing of the Hungate and Harrison families – neighbours whose lives are thrown into turmoil by divorce and a death – is told through sketches that never run to more than a page. The entries are alphabetised under thematic headings, such as ‘Optimism’ and ‘Grief’, each illustrated with pictures taken by a different photographer. It’s a wholly distinct aesthetic from that of City on Fire, but a work equally steeped in a fascination with families of different stripes.

Hallberg’s writing style here is more lucid and malleable than the expansive immersion of City on Fire, evocative of masters of American suburbia such as Updike, Cheever, Salter and Richard Yates. The photographs come with meditative captions and playful cross-references to other entries (“An erratic Maturity pattern characterizes the Midlife Crisis: it may remain a manageable size for years, only to reach its stature in a few turbulent days.”) The images themselves echo the work of photographers like William Eggleston or Alec Soth, in which mundane aspects of American life resonate with narrative power. The epigraph is a quote from James Agee, the writer who in the mid-1930s documented Depression-era dustbowl families with photographer Walker Evans. In the ‘how to use’ section Hallberg challenges ‘bold’ readers to dispense with a linear reading approach and to ‘traverse the book at random’.

Conjuring a dreamily filmic spell, with shades of American Beauty and The Ice Storm, this is a work that can be approached (and rediscovered) a number of ways, all equally rewarding. It’s an ideal coffee table or bedside companion, to be dipped into for flashes of pleasure.

‘A Field Guide to the North American Family’ by Garth Risk Hallberg is published by Vintage, £12.99

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