The Gargoyle Hunters is a fine addition to the ever-increasing canon of coming-of-age literature, New York-centric or otherwise.
Write what you know. It’s a popular axiom and as good a reason as any for many writers’ first novels to center on a coming-of-age tale. It’s common enough that we all can share or at least relate to the myriad themes and experiences contained therein, often with a multitude of subtle variations and deviations on an overarching theme. For his first novel, The Gargoyle Hunters, John Freeman Gill does just this, crafting rich detail and impressionistic views of his native New York.
Revolving around 13-year-old Griffin Watts and his quickly disintegrating nuclear family, The Gargoyle Hunters plays with the typical broken family dynamic. There’s the wildly idealistic father who never seems to have managed to settle into his paternal role, continuously chasing the fleeting vestiges of a rapidly receding youth; the broken mother who can’t seem to see beyond her own pain and thus becomes little more than a two-dimensional character who slips in and out of the narrative; and the troubled older sibling (in this case a sister, Quigley) going through their own life challenges in the struggle for identity.
It’s a formula that has been used time and again in literature and film: from The Perks of Being a Wallflower to Crossing California to The Squid and the Whale and a whole host of points in between. It’s an easily relatable narrative approach that allows for subtle variations and nuance that can be bent and shaped based on geography, chronology and assorted gender politics. In the case of the Watts family, the city is New York and the time is the early-to-mid-‘70s. This in and of itself is an ideal physical backdrop to a crumbling family, the city awash in its own ruin and struggling to retain its identity and longstanding sense of self in the face of rapid social change.
Within this crumbling cityscape, Griffin’s father attempts to cling to the world he knew in his formative years by literally piecing it together from disparate fragments of the city’s architectural landscape. His is an exercise in futility fueled by madness and an overpowering aversion to change and what he perceives as the destruction of “his” city. The concept of personal ownership comes up throughout the novel, each character reckoning with their own sense of self and place within a world that is constantly changing, for better or worse.
Faced with parents barely on speaking terms, Griffin is forced to pick between his pill-popping, chronically depressed artist mother and his overly idealistic, narcissistic father. With neither a very promising choice, Griffin opts to follow his father in the latter’s quest to own bits and pieces of early 20th-century architectural accoutrements. Here Gill’s work as a native New Yorker and longtime contributor to The New York Times (among a host of other New York-centric publications) comes into play, his focus on geographic detail and architectural intricacies never flashy, always fascinating. Indeed, The Gargoyle Hunters often reads more as an architectural history lesson than a look at a fictional family falling apart.
But Gill’s strength as a writer is in not only vividly portraying the city he clearly loves, but also imbuing his main characters with fully formed personalities, replete with flaws and moral shades of gray. Griffin smokes, drinks and wanders the city at all hours, while his sister spends her time with much older men involved with the theatre. And while the latter is something of a red herring, Griffin’s adventures take an increasingly dark path that ultimately finds him facing down the father who abandoned him, all in the midst of a massive hurricane. And while the outcome is rather predictable, the path Griffin takes to get there is anything but.
With this being Griffin’s story, it’s understandable that he would be the novel’s most fully-realized character. Much like 17-year-old Matthew, the narrator and main character in Michael Imperioli’s recently-published debut novel The Perfume Burned His Eyes, Griffin is lost in a world that changed all too quickly before he managed to find his place. Both boys have essentially lost their fathers, been left with largely absent mothers and seek advice and guidance in the form of equally damaged surrogate parents and slightly older, seemingly wizened girls. In fact, both Michael and Griffin inhabit essentially the same time and space—mid-‘70s New York—and find themselves facing the same existential crises.
Both (first) novels, too, draw heavily from the coming-of-age well and follow many of the same narrative beats to varying degrees of success, with neither character ever coming to any real conclusions in their search for self. But the fact of the matter is we rarely know or see ourselves the way we might’ve once hoped, as evidenced in the equally adrift adults populating both novels. Neither comes to any sort of uplifting or inspiring conclusion, and instead they follow a more realistic narrative arc in which nothing is ever truly resolved and the only way forward is getting out of bed each morning and facing what the day has to offer.
Despite the lack of more fully-realized characters surrounding him, Griffin’s journey reads like a heavily detailed inner monologue crafted in real time within a city and familial state in the midst of irreparable change. It’s equally frustrating, fascinating and utterly human, all aided by Gill’s stellar prose. The Gargoyle Hunters is a fine addition to the ever-increasing canon of coming-of-age literature, New York-centric or otherwise.