A Field Guide to the North American Family by Garth Risk Hallberg
When Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut City on Fire was published in 2015, its hype preceded much discussion of its literary merit. At nearly 1,000 pages and earning Hallberg an unheard-of seven-figure book deal, people expected City on Fire to be a Dickensian masterwork of New York City in the 1980s. What they got instead was a perfectly adequate first novel, warts and all: shimmering with promise but in dire need of an edit. Hallberg proved he’s got a knack for literary networks of characters running into characters: City on Fire relies on overlapping threads that manage to elicit both crossover excitement and a quietly thoughtful revelation that the world is a lot smaller than it may seem. Readers who manage to resist the hype of City on Fire and experience it like any new novel will surely be excited to see where Hallberg goes next: with a little maturity and refinement he could be a great new novelist.
Unfortunately, A Field Guide to the North American Family is not that step forward: originally published in 2007 with a small art-book press, this novella shows the early germination of Hallberg’s ambition and penchant for networking stories. He was 29 when this was first published, and it shows: centered on family dysfunction and the interactions between two neighboring houses, A Field Guide to the North American Family scratches the surface of an easy, oft-told story.
The Harrison family is mourning the loss of their patriarch while the Hungate family is working through a divorce. Their boys are the same age but not very friendly: one’s a social outcast while the other is getting into graffiti. The aspiring street artist is also secretly hooking up with the outcast’s older sister, and their parents may have illicit secrets of their own. Hallberg completes this melodrama with a tragic accident, the blame for which can hazily be drawn back to any of these stock characters.
While the story of A Field Guide to the North American Family may feel unremarkable, the format of this novella is enough to warrant a look. Composed entirely of independent, page-long vignettes, Hallberg divides his book alphabetically by theme: there’s a page for “Adolescence” towards the front, with terms like “Uncertainty” and “Vulnerability” appearing at the end. Each term is paired with a short sketch, often running no more than four sentences, centering on one of the principal characters. It’s a fun challenge to unpack these sketches to see which character the scene is about, as Hallberg often buries identifying characteristics underneath flowery (and somewhat angsty) prose. Any uncertainty reveals a curious equalizer between characters, and shows that there’s an emotional midpoint between precocious teens and their (often) immature parents.
Each section is also paired with a photograph, shot by one of over fifty artists Hallberg hand-picked for his guide. These photos lend a lovely mixed-media aesthetic to the novella, pushing it towards the realm of literary artifact or artist’s book. Lastly, Hallberg provides readers with a number of cross-referenced section headings (in two different fonts) that relate to other entries in the book. The author’s statement at the start reveals that readers can progress alphabetically or jump around via these cross-references, following a different, choose-your-own-adventure-style path through the novella’s pages. “Certain bold readers may even wish to traverse the book at random,” Hallberg explains in his foreword.
The airiness of Hallberg’s plot is redeemed by its presentation. Readers will find the physicality of A Field Guide to the North American Family far more rewarding than its actual story, and that’s not such a bad thing: although light on content, this is nonetheless a creative, impressive composition.