New York City’s renaissance—safer streets, graffiti-free subways, suddenly trendy neighborhoods—has brought with it a nostalgia for grittier times. A wide range of books from Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire to Patti Smith’s Just Kids have explored the drama and poetry of New York’s so-called bad old days. John Freeman Gill’s first novel, The Gargoyle Hunters fits neatly into this subgenre. It unfolds in Manhattan during the mid-1970s when crime was rampant and New York City teetered on the edge of bankruptcy.
The book revolves around 13-year-old Griffin Watts, who lives with his mother, sister and various boarders in a dilapidated Manhattan brownstone. That is, when he’s not roaming the city at night with his father, who “liberates”—steals—gargoyles and other architectural ornaments from the city’s aging but beautiful old buildings. Griffin wants so desperately to spend time with his dad that he can’t see the looming danger, both emotional and physical. Scaling a building to swipe another treasure for his dad, Griffin says, “I wasn’t sure whether I felt like a mountain climber or a marionette.”
At a deeper level, Gill—who knows the city intimately and is even a real estate columnist and editor—is wrestling with the nature of change. Cities like New York evolve (for better or worse) the same way people do, and the real danger comes when we ignore that reality. Fans of Richard Russo will appreciate the complex dynamic between needy, young Griffin and his father, whose breezy affability masks profound, even abusive, flaws.
Some of Gill’s dialogue strains to be humorous, and readers outside of New York will have to decide how interested they are in some of Gotham’s long-lost landmarks and sports stars. Overall, though, The Gargoyle Hunters is an absorbing family tale and a wise meditation on aging.