I know, I know — we need another novel about New York City the way New York City needs another skyscraper. But clear a little patch of ground for this unabashedly charming story by John Freeman Gill. For years, Gill has been writing about architecture and real estate, and now, at an age when most successful journalists would be content just to keep their careers in good repair, he’s embarked on a wholesale rehab. The result is “The Gargoyle Hunters,” a debut novel that’s billed as another love letter to New York, but fortunately, it’s more like a collection of quirky postcards.
For Gill, the essential characteristic of Manhattan is its violent reinvention, a compulsive process of creative destruction that makes it such a “maddening, heartbreaking, self-cannibalizing” place. Native New Yorkers know their avenues wind into “a Mobius strip of self-annihilation.” At any moment, rapacious developers may reduce the most beloved old buildings to “a moonscape of devastation” before throwing up some “soulless, homogenized Modernist crap.”
“This is a city,” Gill writes, “where you could inhabit multiple eras simultaneously,” which is what his novel encourages us to do, too. The narrator is Griffin Watts — a clear stand-in for Gill himself — who’s looking back at the summer of 1974 when he was 13. He’s a lovable scamp, a touch theatrical, precocious but innocent. He’s the kind of young man who’s obsessed with baseball but also takes fencing classes; he’s tantalized by girls but unsure what to do with them. His diction shifts erratically from 1970s TV shows to 1930s rom-coms — not so much an actual boy as a boy reconstructed from an older author’s nostalgia. But that’s as it should be because this is a story about nostalgia and the way that sweet elixir can turn rancid in the airless confines of a man’s heart.
Young Griffin lives with his distracted mother, who dabbles in mosaics made from crushed eggshells, and a series of misfit boarders who compete with Griffin for food, which gives their dysfunctional household a Dickensian-lite atmosphere. The central challenge of his adolescence and the focus of this often funny novel is Griffin’s efforts to win his errant father’s attention. Mr. Watts is a handsome antiques dealer, but that’s just a facade for his real work, which is salvaging imperiled details from New York buildings.
Some fathers might teach their sons to change a tire; Watts teaches Griffin to clean decorative moldings. He can be strident about architectural ornaments, yes, but he’s never dull. He’s clearly the product of Gill’s long career writing about technical matters for lay readers. Griffin is surprised how interesting cornices and terra cotta angels are, and you will be, too. The whole cityscape seems suddenly infused with meaning. “You, son, are going to learn to look up,” his father tells him. “You are not going to be another one of those blinkered goddamn New Yorkers who walk around town staring at their shoes, or worse, have their eyes so fixed on whatever goal they’re hurrying toward that they never see the city around them.” I was lucky enough to be reading this novel while in New York and was surprised by what an elevating effect it had on my own vision. After a few chapters with Watts, it’s impossible not to turn your gaze toward the sky.
But “The Gargoyle Hunters” isn’t an architecture lecture bolted onto the frame of a novel. It’s far too fun for that, and it revolves around Watts’s highly questionable avocation. He’s consumed with a collector’s mania, and the object of his obsession is Manhattan’s physical history, a record in stone, granite and iron that he surreptitiously gathers in an old baby carriage or his repurposed Good Humor ice cream truck. Doors, pews, banisters, cornices, moldings, grilles, medallions, pilasters — they’re all squirreled away in his Tribeca lair, which shimmers with a touch of dark magic. Some might call what Watts does “stealing”; he prefers the term “liberating.” His superior taste allows him to transcend the common morality of philistines. “What I’m doing is saving these things,” he tells Griffin, who is willing to believe that if it means he can spend some larceny time with his dad.
And what fantastic adventures these two have while creeping around and up New York buildings in the middle of the night, liberating ornaments that might fall by the wrecking ball tomorrow — or someday. There’s no job too risky that Watts won’t send his son tiptoeing out on a crumbling ledge, or crawling across a sagging board, or even dangling from a fraying rope to rescue an endangered gargoyle 50 stories off the ground. Looking back, Griffin realizes these were not “reasonable things for a grown man to ask of a thirteen-year-old boy who wanted only to get close to him,” but at the time, he was thrilled. And frankly, so are we. Gill has a surprisingly good facility with these sweaty-palmed adventures high above New York. You’ll never look at the Woolworth Building the same way again.
The novel’s most significant problem, though, is that its best scenes — Griffin’s late-night capers with his dad — are so delightful that other parts feel relatively bland. Griffin’s adolescent interplay involving a would-be girlfriend generates all the excitement of a glass office building along the highway. His sister’s troubled life never comes into focus, and his mother remains a slim caricature, despite some recurring Oedipal scenes that would keep a gaggle of Freudians busy for a month.
All that filler dims but can’t distinguish the poignancy of Griffin’s love for his father. In the end, despite his grandiose designs on the city, he’s just a man of “outraged loneliness” who wants to restore everything except his relationship with his own son. That could have made Griffin a bitter, damaged person, but ultimately, he learns what he needs to from his dad, even if it’s not what his dad thought he was teaching.
Four little ceramic gargoyles are grinning down at me right now from the bookshelves above my desk. They have never seemed more coiled with life.
By John Freeman Gill
Knopf. 339 pp. $27.95