The 50 Most Unacceptable Sentences in City on Fire, In Order

by Carmen Petaccio


Like many a novel before it, City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg’s overlong debut that takes place during the 1977 New York City blackout, comprises a series of sentences. Here are fifty of them.

50. “Just then, a horripilating Scaramouche appeared at her elbow.”

49. “Detonations crash in from nearby like the walls she’s a void at the center of.”

48. “Every time a truck passed the frayed ends of the wine’s wicker sleeve trembled like the needles of some exquisite seismometer.”

47. “Hairs snowed crimson on the formica.”

46. “Steering between the Scylla of too-much and the Charybdis of not-enough, he’d worked hard to project a retiring asexuality.”

45. “Only out in the corridor did Charlie look back, so that the last thing he remembered seeing before forging on through the maze of the basement and up stairs was the two men, one burly and one small, inclined almost Talmudically over the sink, murmuring over what it contained.”

44. “She seemed to want to retract any extension of herself, to become a move-less white egg.”

43. “What was the thing they used to say, back when there were no skyscrapers? The higher the building, the closer…Oh, God.”

42. “Like reggae music and Amateur Night at the Apollo, soul food was one of William’s elective affinities with negritude.”

41. “But that was where the drawing ended. Below was just white space.”

40. “Goodbye, bird.”

39. “The winter sky wheeled around until he was face to safety-pinned face with Sam’s so-called friend, Solomon Grungy. Fee-fi-fo-fum.”

38. “That I may yet myself be delivered.”

37. “But of course, this was true of everybody; who didn’t exist at the convergence of a thousand thousand stories?”

36. “It was supposed to be about America, and freedom, and the kinship of time to pain, but in order to write about these things, he’d needed experience. Well, be careful what you wish for.”

35. “He could hear her upstairs now, her feet pressing faint concavities into the ceiling as she roamed from oven to fridge, humming along with the other countertop radio she hadn’t touched in years.”

34. “Bruno’s indifference to the fiscal was part of why she was able to work for him with a clean-ish conscience, but now that their fortunes were yoked together, she would have liked to have seen a little more entrepreneurial vim.”

33. “And you have to hand it to the man in the miniskirt. Even when the siren bloops, even when the megaphone sizzles to life again, s/he stands his/her ground.”

32. “It was like trying to squeeze toothpaste back into the tube.”

31. “The sun over Jersey was medium rare.”

30. “Soon patches of unaccountable hair would bloom on his blemishless body and strange yearnings would seize him like giant fists.”

29. “She couldn’t tell if it was good, exactly, but no one could say it wasn’t ambitious.”

28. “Then the detective, who must have seen the look on her face, spoke up Solomonically.”

27. “Having finally finished his article, he would deliver the fanzines to his friend Larry Pulaski. Only here came that other friend, Complication.”

26. “Mercer couldn’t see one anywhere, but like some bounding St. Bernard of the metaphysical, he couldn’t quite let go of the belief that there must be an objective reality out there, beyond his own head.”

25. “Looks like you got a real shitstorm on your hands, Pulaski.”

24. “She wanted to rub his come into her skin like a transfiguring lotion.”

23. “He made a cherubic trumpet with his mouth, sucked the Cheerio down.”

22. “But all he got now was Daddy glancing over the top of the business section, like an ornithologist at some mildly diverting bird.”

21. “Lines were forming in the lineless face, cinching it into a moue of displeasure.”

20. “Are you going to be obstreperous all night, Bruno?” Jenny asked him.

19. “There was a period just after the inevitability of ruin hove into view and just before it smashed in to the hull of your life that was the closest to pure freedom anybody ever got.”

18. “What if one eye was missing, its soft pink socket gaping like the eye of a painting that follows you around the room?”

17. “You could hear the upstairs neighbor kids running around, like shoes tumbling in a dryer.”

16. …”but the voice set tumblers falling inside her, in a keyhole that had locked other things she ought to have known.”

15. “That she didn’t think he was was why she loved him.”

14. “‘Do you know what I like best? …Just sleeping with someone. Just being next to someone while I sleep.’”

13. “Then the sky flashed white and ripped and the rain began, a real five-o’clockalypse, and when the guitar stopped, whatever cohesion or pressure held the audience together dissipated.”

12. “…his crotch bestirred itself happily when, in the invisible understory below shoulder height, she let the back of her hand rest against it.”

11.”And here was this broad soft broad in her oversized jersey, boogieing closer.”

10. “Breasts like bronzed mangoes.”

9. “Seven o’clock was some kind of citywide dog walking hour, when hordes of ostensibly autonomous individuals, still in permutations of professional attire, rushed out of their co-ops tugged by leashes taut as water-skiers’ ropes, at the other end of which, straining like hairy engines, were spaniels, shah thus, bichon frises.”

8. “There has to be a natural limit to how long anyone can spend like this, in a black aluminum suppository lodged in the asshole of the earth.”

7. “His beard was Amish-ish. The girl wore some kind of insalubrious sports uniform and carried a bag with a broken zipper.”

6. “Once he’d carried her to the bed, he lifted her nightgown and moved down between her legs and lapped at the spiced copper there until, across the quivering swell of her belly and breasts he saw the flush leap into her throat, her hands twisting the sheets by her head.”

5. “She looked like a mythological creature, a silkie or dryad, long blond hair and a low-cut dress in which her breasts, without any apparent means of support, were offered like alluring canapés.”

4. “There were her tits, perfect pale apples, their small stems hard from the basement chill.”

3. “In the moonlight through the ceiling’s trapdoor, her tits look like soft blue balloons.”

2. “You are infinite. I see you. You are not alone.”

1 . “Great rolls of toilet paper arc like ejaculate through the black sycamores.”