Random House: Bringing You the Best in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Children's Books
Newletters and Alerts

Buy now from Random House

See more online stores - Burning City

Burning City

Written by Ariel DorfmanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Ariel Dorfman and Joaquin DorfmanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Joaquin Dorfman


List Price: $6.99


On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 288 | ISBN: 978-0-307-43320-6
Published by : Random House Books for Young Readers RH Childrens Books
Burning City Cover

Share & Shelve:

  • Add This - Burning City
  • Email this page - Burning City
  • Print this page - Burning City


It is the simmering summer of 2001 in New York City. Heller is the youngest employee of Soft Tidings, a messenger service whose motto is “news with a personal touch.” At Soft Tidings, a message is not handed over but told to the recipient. And the messages, as a rule, are not especially good news. Heller prefers his bike to the mandatory Rollerblades, and he gets away with his maniacal bike riding because he is, hands down, the best deliverer of bad news. This summer will be memorable for Heller as he finds himself drawn into the lives of a wildly diverse cast of characters, accidentally falling in love, and relating to people in a whole new way.

From the Hardcover edition.


Heller thought the entire world was going to melt that summer.
It was the Fourth of July and all of Manhattan was sweating. It was coming out of the streets, buildings, faucets; even the Hudson River could be heard for miles, begging for a drink, something to keep it cool. Radios reported the weather out of habit. Sleeping couples woke up to damp sheets. Construction workers went without their shirts and stockbrokers loosened their ties with quiet envy. Tourists complained, ice-cream vendors smiled, and mercury climbed steadily up tired thermometers.
Heller Highland saw all of this, and that which he couldn’t see he simply knew. School had been out for just over a month. He sat on the roof of his building and kept his eyes on the sky, due southeast. Glass of water in his left hand, ice already dissolved, even in the cool of the evening. Airplane lights traveled past, left and right, fireflies of the twentieth century--
Twenty-first century, Heller corrected himself silently. It’s two thousand and one; twenty-first century. . . .
He took a sip of water. Waited for the fireworks to start.
Independence Day.
There was no American flag in his right hand. Just a telegram. No red, white, or blue. Just an elegantly embossed message on an ambiguously light green card; 4 x 8. Heller was barely aware he was holding it. Just watched the sky. An unchanging Manhattan skyline. The sounds of the city kept him company. The distant blast of traffic, pedestrians, and the hum of a thousand air conditioners and fans, all in the same key.
A breeze managed to find its way into the city, and Heller’s blond hair lifted itself, thankful. Heller smiled. He stopped. Smiled again, stopped, smiled, bit his lip and stopped. A few seconds later the wind died down, and Heller was left in his chair, on his roof, in his city of millions.
“Fireworks are late,” came a voice behind him.
Heller didn’t turn around. “Any minute now, I’m sure.”
His grandfather, Eric, walked up next to him, stood for a while, glanced down.
“Soft Tidings?”
“I thought you had the day off.”
“It’s from Mom and Dad.”
“Really? What’s it say?”
“Haven’t read it.”
Eric kept quiet, thought about it. Then:
“They should be coming back soon.”
“I’d like to think so. . . .”
Grandfather forced a chuckle. “You make it sound like they’re dead.”
“I do not,” Heller said. “I just know how it can be with them.”
The two of them watched the sky. An ambulance cried in the distance. Heller wondered at the emergency. Thought about a phone call at three in the morning. Thought about a family waiting for news thousands of miles away. Thought too much.
“Did you see Silvia today?” Eric asked.
“. . . I stopped by the coffee shop,” Heller said cautiously. “She was there.”
“When do I get to meet her?”
“I know your grandmother’s been wanting to meet her for a long time. . . . Heller?”
“I know how she feels. . . .”
“Heller?” Eric repeated, voice softer this time.
“We should have had some sort of celebration, you know.”
“I like celebrating like this.”
“Are you happy living with your grandmother and me?”
“You know I am.”
“Are you sure?”
“You know I am,” Heller said.
“Mom and Dad are fine, I promise.”
“Now you make it sound like they’re dead.”
“I don’t think you’re hearing me right.”
An explosion tore the night apart and a hot blast of red lit the air. Heller jumped inadvertently. Within three seconds the entire night was filled with a thousand lights, imitation stars, fireworks mirroring the glow of apartments and office buildings.
“Hey, there they are,” Eric said.
“Boom, boom.”
“Happy Fourth of July, Heller.”
Heller nodded.
“I’ll go get your grandmother.”
Heller listened to his grandfather’s footsteps head for the stairs. The sky erupted over and over, and Heller felt the smile return, bit his lip. “Eric?”
The footsteps halted. Twelve deafening fireworks were released at once.
“Mom and Dad say they’re doing fine.”
Heller cleared his throat. “Happy Fourth of July.”
He couldn’t see his grandfather but could sense him nodding as he said, “Happy birthday, Heller. . . . Sweet sixteen . . .”
The ribbons of light cascaded over the city. Blast after blast, the sky rained down on Heller and the rest of the country. The world seemed to be getting smaller, the summers hotter, and despite the air-conditioning, the city continued to sweat.
Heller brought the glass of water to his lips and realized it was empty.
The entire world was going to melt that summer.
There was no doubt about this in Heller’s mind.

From the Hardcover edition.
Ariel Dorfman|Joaquin Dorfman

About Ariel Dorfman

Ariel Dorfman - Burning City

Photo © Les Todd at Duke News Service

A writer for adults, Ariel Dorfman is an exile from the Pinochet regime in Chile and the child of holocaust refugees. He has written several plays about repression and dictatorship including Death and the Maiden (filmed by Roman Polanski).


Heller Highlander, that’s my name, and as for my birth, I’d rather not tell you how long I have been waiting for that father, Ariel, and his son, Joaquin, to decide to write me into existence–create a novel where I could tear down the streets of New York, fall in love, lose my girl, receive protection from an older man, Salim, and then find myself suddenly without his guidance, alone again in the world. A long time. Characters wait in some sort of literary limbo, expectantly peering down (or up?) into the minds of potential authors, wondering if we’ll ever get a chance to fully blossom into words, surrounded by other novelistic wannabes, wagering who will get out of here first.

I was supposed to be one of the young creatures with not much of a chance of a storybook life: I had to be fictionalized by a father and a son. There was no other way to gestate, that’s how it was, those were the rules for me. Like Madame Bovary–you should have seen when our Emma noticed the birth of little Gustave. “He’s the one, this Flaubert kid,” she said to us and we mocked her a bit. How could she know? She was going to have a deluded life anyway, so why be so enthusiastic to get onto the written page? But she was right and off she went, and I remembered her when my eager-to-be created eyes lit upon Ariel and Joaquin talking up a possible young adult novel, roaming always, my eyes, in search of some manner of delivery. They’ll do it! But I kept my thoughts to myself, didn’t want anyone, especially Holden Caulfield, making fun of me. (I can see him now: “I got Salinger, ha! And you, Heller, all you can hope for are two Dorfmans. Not one! Two!”)

At any rate, I had that gut feeling, as deep and wondrous as when you kick the pedal on a bike and the rush about to stir up the street starts to stir up your blood, dancing inside, I had that feeling. Ariel knew something about New York because he was raised there as a child, and Joaquin was even better equipped because he had lived there for years as a young man. And then there was the fact that Ariel had wandered all his life, back and forth, was almost a quintessential exile, open to all those migrants to this Biggest Apple; and Joaquin, well, he should get a diploma, a master’s degree, a PhD, in wandering, but in a different way from his father. And they would understand someone like me, someone who feels the joy of delivering messages, even if they are the saddest in the world, because I also know how to comfort, how to somehow find the words that are needed. And who but those two authors of mine could be kind enough to send me on my trip and be severe enough to realize, at the same time, how much I still needed to learn, ready to teach me some lessons? And they were so different in style and approach and narrative strategy and I knew that I required exactly that tension between them in order to find myself on a page, charging through a Manhattan that knows but cannot tell its inhabitants that far dire messages are on their way from abroad, a city on fire in the summer of 2001. And when they started to write me, what could I say? What can I say now? But thanks, guys, thanks for giving me this life. In your face, Holden Caulfield!

About Joaquin Dorfman

Joaquin Dorfman - Burning City

Photo © Courtesy of Rodrigo Dorfman

Sure, I could start with my birth: a cold February in Amsterdam back in 1979. I could tell you about my upbringing in North Carolina, schools attended both there and in Santiago, Chile. Then there’re the New York years, both as an NYU student and basement resident of Sunset Park, Brooklyn. I could even take self-indulgence to its natural conclusion and discuss my past and pending works in the rough and tumble world of literary insert-French-word-here.

But none of it holds a candle . . .

No, none of it even comes close . . . to my date with Christina Ricci.

And I swear, this actually happened.

The day began the same any other. Up at the crack of dawn after a refreshing eight hours of shut-eye. Slipping out from under silk sheets, into my slippers, and then proceeding to do three hours worth of calisthenics while mainlining my daily protein concoction of tofu, ginkgo extract, salmon roe, and yohimbe bark.

Just another day for Joaquin Emiliano Dorfman.

Just another day for Joaquin Emiliano Dorfman, the writer.

Just another day for Joaquin Emiliano Dorfman, the most widely read and admired writer of this or any other era (except the Thoracic Era maybe . . . lousy Thor).

No, better still. Just another day for Dr. Joaquin Emiliano Dorfman, Justice of the Peace, award-winning author, Rhodes Scholar, Viceroy of Awesome Town, and special attaché to, let’s say . . . Outer Space.

Or was it?

Yes, it was.

My regular early hour constitutional continued, unabated, as morning turned to afternoon. I tended to my Japanese garden, furthered my lab research on the effects of ribonucleic acids on cancerous cells, all the while casually bench-pressing entire school buses filled with innocent children and precariously tottering on the edge of (your choice) a ravine, a chasm, a waterfall, or the Golden Gate Bridge. (While I currently reside in North Carolina, my mastery of quantum mechanics allows for my arms to exist in several different phase states at once, especially San Francisco.)

After polishing my Nobel in chemistry (for the bombing of Cambodia), I casually strolled over to not the corner liquor store, and purchased not several pints of Kentucky Gentlemen. After not drinking half of those (did you know that Leonardo da Vinci also didn’t drink Kentucky Gentleman?) and taking a brief nap, I awoke with not only not with my head half-buried in a cat box, but also not with blood on my hands and certainly not with the body of a dead stranger in my (marble-carved) bathtub.

After not disposing of the evidence, I settled at my desk. Armed only with pen, paper, an army of walking corpses, and a delightfully frisky mineral water, I went about composing my treatise on polymers and their symbiotic relation to primal reactions in the medulla oblongata (entitled Why Gumby Scares the Ever-Loving Crap Out of Me).

After two or three minutes of that, I got sleepy and took another nap.

I took dinner in the conservatory, along with my editors, Jim and Nick. Both appeared to be very alarmed at the Swat Team and the one remaining National Guard member surrounding my house. Also, they suggested that I use too many sentence fragments.

The brace of quail, however, was exquisite.

And so it went; after an amusing glass of Taylor Fladgate 12-Year Tawny Port, it was back to bed. Spot on at eight in the o’clock, after a full day’s worth of everything I just said happened.

Long story short, I lied about the whole Christina Ricci thing.


Joaquin Dorfman (M.D.)

Your E-Mail Address
send me a copy

Recipient's E-Mail Address
(multiple addresses may be separated by commas)

A personal message: