John Freeman Gill’s The Gargoyle Hunters is a paean to New York City architecture and bad parenting. It’s also a tender, hilarious coming of age story. Set in the 1970s, I did a lot of reminiscing as I read.
In brief, Griffin Watts becomes a teen as he tells us the story of his life at the time. His parents are “creative types” who are newly separated. Griffin is navigating the changes in himself, his family, and the city around him. The main parental character is his dad Nick, who has a seriously unhealthy obsession with architectural carvings. Griffin gets involved in his business because he wants to spend time with his dad.
Gill does a masterful job of describing the soon-to-be lost beauty of old New York. As one character says, “The only city worth saving is the city we have lost.” During the 70s the city went through a period of intense urban renewal, and Nick Watts is broken hearted about it. He also sees it as an opportunity to boldly pilfer (or as he says rescue) gargoyles, keystones, carvings, columns, etc. All of Gill’s descriptions make me want to take my camera and walk through the cities around me searching for beautiful oddities.
Griffin discovers himself, his city, and quite a lot about his father along the way. Gill writes him without sentimentality, as a giggling crude kid with his friends and an awkward neophyte with his first crush. I absolutely adored Griffin, as both the kid and the man reaching back into a mountain of bittersweet memories.
In terms of writing style, The Gargoyle Hunters is exactly what I love. The descriptions are original without trying too hard. Griffin regularly assigns fantastic anthropomorphic perspectives to the carved faces and creatures. The juxtapositions of time, place, and feelings are brilliant. I often laughed out loud! Here’s one about the Statue of Liberty.
“My old fears about lightening flashed though me. How high above the harbor were we, anyway? Plenty high enough to be at risk, that’s for sure. And to make matters worse, Lady Liberty, oblivious to the danger, was thrusting her torch heavenward, fairly begging to be zapped. Her whole posture was so irrational for a fifteen-story-tall metal woman that it wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that she was actually standing on her tippy toes, trying her damnedest to brush the tip of that torch against the storm cloud and draw down its voltage, the way the pole on the back of a bumper car sucked its power from the electrified grid above it.”
I wish I could share this book with my grandmother, who grew up in Manhattan and always bought me books about early twentieth-century New York so I could experience “her city.” I think she would have been saddened by the destructive renewal, but charmed by Griffin and Nick.
I loved this story of a completely abnormal childhood, alternately bizarre and magical. Here’s hoping John Freeman Gill has another project in the works!