She Survived a Train Accident. Her Train Wreck of a Dad Is Next.

THE SECOND COMING, by Garth Risk Hallberg

Garth Risk Hallberg’s ambitious but uneven and exhausting new novel, “The Second Coming,” takes its title from an unreleased live album by Prince. One of the book’s central characters, a 13-year-old girl named Jolie Aspern, is on a Manhattan subway platform listening to a bootleg version when her phone slips from her hand and clatters onto the tracks below.

She climbs down after it. A train heaves into view. Oh no! Jolie is rescued, but she is hurt and shaken up. Was she suicidal or just foolish? The next day she is the subject of a New York Post headline: “APP-ETITE FOR DESTRUCTION.”

This early scene is one of many needle drops in Hallberg’s multigenerational and music-drenched novel, which is set primarily in 2011 but frequently flashes forward a decade, and backward even further. By the end, the novel has become a mixtape of sorts, with sections named after songs.

“The Second Coming” never becomes a great rock or music novel. Hallberg doesn’t make you feel what his characters are getting out of these songs. But this is certainly a novel that, to annex a thought from Annie Proulx in “The Shipping News,” makes you realize that one of the bummers of existence is that “there is no background music.”

This is Hallberg’s second novel, if you don’t count “A Field Guide to the North American Family,” a 2007 novella. His first, “City on Fire,” a sprawling New York City story set in part during the blackout of July 13, 1977, made an impact when it was published in 2015. It made best-seller lists. Frank Rich gave it a yea-saying review on the cover of The Times Book Review, though he also had a lot of caveats.

Speaking of The New York Post, it ran a “City on Fire” review, too. Its headline was: “Overhyped novel ‘City on Fire’ is a steaming pile of literary dung.” My opinion of the novel is closer to Rich’s, but The Post’s dissent registers with me. Hallberg is an intelligent writer, but he’s a wild and frequently sloppy one. His narratives don’t click into gear; his curveball only sometimes makes it over the plate.

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