Village Voice 05.10.2017 : Page 35

Gods and Monsters Seventies New York comes alive in John Freeman Gill’s The Gargoyle Hunters W BY CASEY BARRETT | ILLUSTRATION BY SERGIY MAIDUKOV 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, espe-cially when winter takes its sweet time hen your back-cover blurbs include multiple compari-sons 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 architec-ture; a coming-of-age story; a dysfunc-tional-family saga. It’s all those things, but it’s really all about one thing: the 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’ di-vorce. 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 sal-vaged 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 archi-tectural 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 em-bellishment 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 Wool-worth 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 chap-ters of his first draft, Gill hit a wall. A jour-ceding to spring. The answer, as Gill nalist with a honed bullshit detector, he knows well, is that there is nowhere else realized he didn’t know enough about the for us to go. Nowhere with the diversity, world he was immersed in. And so, like the energy, the life that could sustain us. any good reporter, he set his manuscript At least that’s what we tell ourselves. aside and hit the pavement. He tracked If you find yourself in the midst of one down actual gargoyle hunters and preser-of those periodic city soul-searches, an vation architects — including one respon-excellent prescription for it would be this sible for the Woolworth Building’s book. It embraces not just New York, but Seventies restoration. the dangerous, crumbling, broke Man-“I wanted my rendering hattan of the 1970s. It’s a pe-of that building to be so riod with well-tapped creative accurate,” Gill says, “that veins. Garth Risk Hallberg’s The Gargoyle people who knew it like City on Fire might have been Hunters the back of their hand the most hyped novel of 2015; By John would say, ‘Yes, that could it too reveled in the mid-Freeman Gill Knopf happen.’ ” Seventies madness of New 352 pp. Suffice to say that what York City. The roster of films happens is an example of that mine the same territory is some of the most irrespon-almost too long to list. Gill’s sible parenting ever committed to the novel might find itself in well-traveled page. There’s more than enough page-company on those mean streets, but its turning action here for any reader to envi-plot is wholly original. sion the movie adaption, but back to the It’s about those gorgeous ornamental central virtue of this buzz-worthy book: carvings: the gargoyles and mermaids, the sentences. The screen can’t capture the gods and goddesses, the fanciful bi-zarre characters and the real-life portraits those. But New Yorkers tend to take pride in the details that numb suburbanites that once transformed the city into a gi-miss. Or as Gill writes in the book’s final ant open-air art gallery. All you had to do chapter: was look up. But by the Seventies the city Any New Yorker who’s paying attention was, quite literally, falling apart. Many of will tell you that the city is a living, breath-the buildings bearing this artistry were ing organism at war with itself. not only being demolished — oftentimes Why do we stay? these gargoyles were falling right off and For stories like this. landing at the feet of New Yorkers. 37 May 10 -May 16, 2017 VILLAGE VOICE.com

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