There’s been quite a bit of hype lately about Garth Risk Hallberg’s forthcoming debut novel City on Fire, and since million-dollar deals are a grand way to inspire envy in the breast (or maybe belly) of lesser mortals, and make the day’s work impossible for writers plagued by doubt and uncertainty (who, me?), yesterday I dug out my copy of Best New American Voices 2008 to read his story Early Humans. And guess what? It’s good. The narrator’s voice is spot on, undiluted 21st century West Coast American, so exasperating that you’re soon hoping for a really monstrous quake to hit California and sink Stan along with every one of his fellow agents—writers will know what I mean.
Except. Except that Hallberg pulls off the wonderful (and extremely difficult) task of making this already sinking agent sympathetic to us. It’s the sort of balance between repugnance and empathy that satire aims for, or at least ought to. I’m always skeptical about narration in the first-person present tense, but in Hallberg’s hands it’s Stan’s sad bulwark against his quaking world. Hallberg gets it just right. He gets us.