Art

Seventies New York Comes Alive in John Freeman Gill’s “The Gargoyle Hunters”

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When your back-cover blurbs include multiple comparisons to J.D. Salinger, you’ve got to be feeling pretty good about your first novel. When those blurbers include such lit luminaries as Colum McCann and Annie Proulx, your publisher is probably feeling pretty good too. New York native John Freeman Gill’s The Gargoyle Hunters is that kind of book — an ambitious, elegiac tale of the city that gazes up at the greats.

It can be called many things — a love letter to New York City’s finest architecture; a coming-of-age story; a dysfunctional-family saga. It’s all those things, but it’s really all about one thing: the sentences. “Yards and yards of beautiful writing,” Proulx blurbs. Which is true: An MFA student could find passages to underline and envy on almost every page. But for me it was about the four-word first question of the prologue:

Why do we stay?

Why indeed do we remain voluntary captives of this maddening, memory-less, stupidly expensive town? I first opened this book fresh off a stretch in Los Angeles, and that question felt awfully resonant. It was a cold and wet April day, the kind that never happens in L.A. It’s a permanent condition of long-term New Yorkers, wondering why we stay, especially when winter takes its sweet time ceding to spring. The answer, as Gill knows well, is that there is nowhere else for us to go. Nowhere with the diversity, the energy, the life that could sustain us. At least that’s what we tell ourselves.

If you find yourself in the midst of one of those periodic city soul-searches, an excellent prescription for it would be this book. It embraces not just New York, but the dangerous, crumbling, broke Manhattan of the 1970s. It’s a period with well-tapped creative veins. Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire might have been the most hyped novel of 2015; it too reveled in the mid-Seventies madness of New York City. The roster of films that mine the same territory is almost too long to list. Gill’s novel might find itself in well-traveled company on those mean streets, but its plot is wholly original.

It’s about those gorgeous ornamental carvings: the gargoyles and mermaids, the gods and goddesses, the fanciful bizarre characters and the real-life portraits that once transformed the city into a giant open-air art gallery. All you had to do was look up. But by the Seventies the city was, quite literally, falling apart. Many of the buildings bearing this artistry were not only being demolished — oftentimes these gargoyles were falling right off and landing at the feet of New Yorkers.

It’s about the obsessiveness that can arise when one sees his city being stripped of its beauty and determines to rescue what he can of it. It’s not stealing, it’s rescuing, it’s liberating them — that’s the first lesson for thirteen-year-old Griffin Watts, imparted by his manic gargoyle-hunting father. Griffin resides at 152 East 89th Street, the exact address of the author’s youth. Like for the young Watts, it was the site of his parents’ divorce. Also like his protagonist, Gill had a parent who was among this odd tribe of hunters.

“My mother did it,” Gill says. “When I was growing up we had a number of salvaged pieces. We had a snarling-gargoyle keystone that my mother rescued. She would walk around with her daughter in a stroller and she would find these architectural treasures, and she would oust my sister, literally, from the stroller so she could take a snarling-gargoyle keystone home.”

That story, like the characters’ home address, is lifted with little need for embellishment in the book. When you live a colorful childhood on the Upper East Side of Seventies Manhattan, with “mug money” perpetually tucked in your pocket, the truth may be strange, but it’s also a springboard to stranger fiction. Safe to say John Freeman Gill was never forced out to the precipice of the Woolworth Building, in the middle of the night, to saw off the last remaining gargoyle from the top, but his character was, and if it feels almost believable it’s because it is.

After cranking out six or seven chapters of his first draft, Gill hit a wall. A journalist with a honed bullshit detector, he realized he didn’t know enough about the world he was immersed in. And so, like any good reporter, he set his manuscript aside and hit the pavement. He tracked down actual gargoyle hunters and preservation architects — including one responsible for the Woolworth Building’s Seventies restoration.

“I wanted my rendering of that building to be so accurate,” Gill says, “that people who knew it like the back of their hand would say, ‘Yes, that could happen.’ ”

Suffice to say that what happens is an example of some of the most irresponsible parenting ever committed to the page. There’s more than enough page-turning action here for any reader to envision the movie adaptation, but back to the central virtue of this buzz-worthy book: the sentences. The screen can’t capture those. But New Yorkers tend to take pride in the details that numb suburbanites miss. Or as Gill writes in the book’s final chapter:

Any New Yorker who’s paying attention will tell you that the city is a living, breathing organism at war with itself.

Why do we stay?

For stories like this.

The Gargoyle Hunters

By John Freeman Gill

Knopf

352 pp.

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