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COVER REVIEW: FICTION

On Fire with Love

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Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, August 3, 2008

THE GARGOYLE

By Andrew Davidson

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Doubleday. 468 pp. $25.95

In the opening pages of The Gargoyle, Andrew Davidson's outrageous new novel, a pornographer high on cocaine runs his car off a mountain road. The vehicle bursts into flames and burns him to a crisp. Welcome to the pain-riddled world of an acerbic, 35-year-old man who loses everything in those fiery minutes: his career, his fortune, his skin -- all broiled away. This is a story for people who like their literary entertainment well done.

Following close behind David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and Brunonia Barry's The Lace Reader, The Gargoyle is another in this summer's extraordinary series of million-dollar debuts from unknown writers that combine elements of mystery and mysticism.

Davidson is an English teacher from Canada whose bizarre manuscript caught the attention of a big-shot agent in New York and then garnered a $1.25 million advance from Doubleday and contracts from 26 publishers around the world. None of that guarantees a good novel, of course, or even good sales, but this is undeniably a hot book, one likely to ignite the passion of anyone who loves a mix of romance and the macabre.

After that explosive opening scene, the narrator of The Gargoyle awakens in an ICU burn unit, "looking like last week's dim sum." He's been in a coma for seven weeks: "A heat shield kept my body warm enough to survive," he tells us, "a ventilator did my breathing, and I collected enough blood transfusions to shame Keith Richards." His caustic humor provides brief moments of respite during the stomach-wrenching pages that follow. To save his life, doctors repeatedly carve away his "broiled flesh," make broad incisions to accommodate swelling tissue and staple on new sheets of cadaver skin. "There I lay," he says, "wearing dead people as an armor against death."

Davidson has obviously researched such burn cases in depth, and he spares us nothing of this medical treatment, some of which he reportedly learned about by corresponding with a burn survivor. I dare you to read this without flinching. It's as engrossing as it is gruesome, the kind of horror you watch with one eye closed.

As the patient regales us with his sad personal history -- abusive foster parents, a lucrative career in porn, a string of meaningless relationships -- his treatment progresses from one excruciating step to the next. But there's no hope: "I could endure a thousand surgeries," he realizes, "and I'd still be a blister of a human being. There is no cure for what I am . . . a spent, struck match . . . an unbeloved monster." Once startlingly handsome, now he looks forward only to the day when he's well enough to crawl out of the hospital and kill himself.

But into this pit of despair comes an odd visitor who propels the novel along for the next 400 pages: A psychiatric patient named Marianne enters his room and announces that they were lovers in 14th-century Germany: "I've been waiting such a long time," she says. He doesn't believe her for a moment, of course, even though she's "dressed in a cloak that appeared to be of the finest medieval cut." He assumes she's schizophrenic, but since her visits provide a break from the agonizing skin grafts, he plays along.

That's good for him -- and us. Throughout the long story that follows, Marianne remains a mysterious figure, her sanity constantly in question even after we find her too interesting to care if she's crazy. She's the world's greatest sculptor of gargoyles, or "grotesques," as she sometimes calls them. She sleeps naked on slabs in the basement of her castle-like house. "I absorb the dreams of the stone," she tells him, "and the gargoyles inside tell me what I need to do to free them. . . . It's like I'm digging a survivor out from underneath the avalanche of time." It's no coincidence that she's passionately, unconditionally devoted to this man encased in charred flesh.

Best of all, she tells him fantastic old stories: edge-of-your-seat, chivalric tales about lovers whose devotion transcended death. These scenes are unabashedly, extravagantly romantic -- half scholarship, half balderdash -- good enough to make him forget his pain, good enough to make you forget yours! She's got warring Vikings and Japanese feudal lords and, best of all, the dazzling adventures of their own romance back in the 1300s when Marianne was a brilliant translator in the Engelthal monastery and he was a brutal mercenary struck by a flaming arrow (only a copy of Dante's Inferno over his heart saved him). The thrilling installments of their first life together leap from cliff to cliff, filling in the details of a passion that nothing could extinguish. (For a break, she reads to him from her own translation of the Inferno, a story she assumes he'll find "very familiar.")

As the novel moves forward, the question of Marianne's psychosis -- or is it deception? -- grows more pressing. She anticipates and pays for everything he needs, but the narrator must decide whether to cling to his skepticism or let his heart accept the persuasive power of her dedication. For a bitterly cynical, drug-popping alcoholic, this is a considerable leap of faith, but eventually that's the most important action of The Gargoyle: the story of a man who, having been consumed by fire, finally finds a woman to melt his heart. "Only after my skin was burned away," he says in a rare moment of sappiness, "did I finally become able to feel."

The Christian mythology gets a bit heavy toward the end, and The Gargoyle is overcooked by at least 75 pages, but nothing is certain in this swirling novel of tales and legends. The narrator has seen enough horror movies to know that "a burn victim may 'get the girl' -- but usually only with a pickax." After all, he admits, "Marianne Engel's love for me seemed built on so flimsy a premise that I assumed it would come apart." Nothing he -- or you -- can assume about this spectacularly imaginative journey will help navigate its twists and turns. Before it's all over, like Dante before him, our narrator must visit Hades, and like every chapter of The Gargoyle, that's a hell of a story, too. ยท

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at charlesr@washpost.com.


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