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The Second Coming


The Second Coming

When a novelist produces a work of nearly 600 pages, he’s making a large claim on his readers’ attention and bears a fairly heavy burden of proof to justify it. Garth Risk Hallberg’s first novel, CITY ON FIRE --- which I reviewed in 2015 and described as an “immersive story and a distinctive contribution to the field of what might be called the fictional sociology of urban life” --- satisfied that burden, even as it stretched to an imposing 900 pages.

With the passage of almost nine years since the publication of that widely praised novel, expectations for Hallberg’s next book understandably are high. Unfortunately, even at two-thirds the length of its predecessor, THE SECOND COMING --- the story of a father battling addiction while struggling to maintain a tenuous relationship with his teenage daughter --- sags under the weight of its digressions and overwritten prose.

The book’s central narrative involves Ethan Aspern, a one-time aspiring actor struggling with addiction since his teenage years, and his daughter Jolie, a “sweet, quick, exasperating girl” who turns 14 in July 2011 --- the year of the novel’s main action. Jolie already is beginning her own encounter with substance abuse in the form of alcohol, a few months after she’s rescued from the New York City subway track she falls onto after dropping her cell phone. Is it an attempted suicide or an accident? It’s a question that’s never directly answered, though a plausible case could be made for either. Ethan’s wife, Sarah Kupferberg, had left him when Jolie was a preschooler, and the twice-arrested Ethan now resides on an island off the California coast serving as a kind of caretaker for his temporary home’s wealthy owner.

All of that is a promising setup for the story of a flawed but somehow appealing father attempting to overcome a lifetime of bad choices and reconcile with his young daughter before she proceeds too far down her own self-destructive path. Instead, just after this opening section, Hallberg inserts more than 40 pages of a letter Ethan is writing to an adult Jolie in 2021 from Spain, and the story begins to sputter.

"Hallberg is something of a shape-shifting writer. There are moments in THE SECOND COMING that will bring to mind characters like John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom or Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe."

In the letter, Ethan describes in exhaustive detail his life as a 15-year-old living on Maryland’s Eastern Shore as his mother is dying of cancer (even as he filches some of her pain medication), and he grows ever more distant from his father, the rector of a private boys’ school. This is the first of three such hefty slugs of backstory that lift the reader out of the current action of the novel and undermine any hope of maintaining what the novelist John Gardner called its vivid and continuous dream. Even Ethan concedes as he nears the end of the last letter that he’s “ever less sure of the point.”

The book’s most compelling stretch occurs over the Thanksgiving holiday in 2011, when Ethan takes advantage of what Sarah’s mother believes will be a few hours of visitation to transport his daughter to Maryland to attend a memorial service for the father he’d not spoken to for eight years prior to his death. In addition to violating a custody agreement, he’s driving a borrowed van without permission and with a suspended license. In the course of three eventful days, there’s a father-daughter LSD trip, a character rushed to the hospital due to anaphylactic shock, and the real question of whether or not Ethan finally will land in jail for an extended stay. But even in the midst of these events, the narrator asks the reader to “let me pause here to say that I haven’t forgotten you’re in the room, too. I can even feel you wondering, like: What is happening here?”

The novel’s penultimate section, entitled “The Music Must Change,” is offered from shifting perspectives that resolves some plot threads while raising questions about others. Each short section is headed by a song title --- e.g., “B.5: ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ (4:50)” --- that is intended to invoke a mixtape but is more likely to engender confusion on the part of readers seeking to connect title and content. The novel concludes on a note of redemption, but one that falls short of a true resolution.

While CITY ON FIRE contained an elaborate portrait of New York City in the fraught 1970s that seemed a worthy companion to Tom Wolfe’s BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, Hallberg, for the most part, has narrowed his focus here. Though there are many scenes with evocative images of the city, larger events rarely intrude. An exception occurs in one of Ethan’s letters when he describes Manhattan in the aftermath of 9/11, a scene that glancingly introduces the Occupy Wall Street encampment in 2011 and a passing reference to COVID-19.

Hallberg is something of a shape-shifting writer. There are moments in THE SECOND COMING that will bring to mind characters like John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom or Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe. When he’s focused on the travails of the Aspern-Kupferberg nuclear family, it’s easy to hear echoes of Jonathan Franzen in THE CORRECTIONS or CROSSROADS. And in its edgier, pop culture-oriented allusions, a novel like Jennifer Egan’s A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD comes to mind. None of this is to suggest that Hallberg is derivative of any of these writers, but rather to highlight the talent and potential that’s visible in his work.

Inside THE SECOND COMING, there’s a deeply affecting story begging for the freedom to breathe. In the case of a writer of Garth Risk Hallberg’s manifest gifts, it would be wonderful if he took the approach of a poet disciplining himself to write within a certain form and set himself the goal of producing a work of less than monumental size. The result might be surprising and, in all likelihood, surprisingly good.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on June 29, 2024

The Second Coming
by Garth Risk Hallberg

  • Publication Date: May 28, 2024
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0593536924
  • ISBN-13: 9780593536926