Poignant Repairs: JOHN FREEMAN GILL with Hilary Reyl

John Freeman Gill
The Gargoyle Hunters
(Vintage, 2018)

My first experience of John Freeman Gill’s writing came in the form of a very kind and surprising note almost thirty years ago. The note appeared on the final page of a printout of the first short story I submitted to our creative writing class my junior year at Yale. The only thing I recall about the story is that its subject was a refugee girl from El Salvador living in California who had to change her name to protect her identity. All the particulars have vanished from memory. John’s note, however, has left a lasting impression. He wrote that the first time he read my story it didn’t impress him, but that on the second reading he found real emotion and complexity. I remember thinking with astonishment, He read it twice? And now, all these years later, having just reread his novel The Gargoyle Hunters, I am delighted to report that the fruit of his persistent observation is absolutely wonderful. John has proven without a doubt that he will never be among the “complacent army of blind men” as one of his characters describes the majority of the busy people populating New York who never look up to notice the architectural richness all around. John looks, he looks again, and then he crafts.

John has long written about stone environments. From our class, I recall an eerie and touching story called “The Flight,” about a crumbling romantic relationship in which a young man used a fencing foil to help his girlfriend free a miserable yet evasive pigeon trapped in the chimney of her college dorm room. Since then, he has written widely about architecture and changing urban spaces for The New York Times and other places. I have checked in with him periodically about his “New York City novel.” I have had to wait years, and now I know why.

The Gargoyle Hunters is a father-son story set in the 1970s about New York City’s movement between past and future. Part caper, part tragedy, it’s a coming-of-age book that leaves me wondering if we ever really come of age—our city certainly doesn’t. The novel is richly observed, I think, because there is no fixed judgment or overruling nostalgia. John’s characters, especially his winning young protagonist, Griffin, and his beloved urban landscape are always evolving, but they are not taking for granted the things they leave behind. There is a sense of mourning all bound up with a sense of celebration. Discovery and rediscovery. 

I may have been impatient for this book, but boy, John, am I glad I waited. Thank you for taking the time to look and to look again and to write and to write again. It’s great.

Hilary Reyl (Rail): The Gargoyle Hunters opens with a question: “Why do we stay?” I’m hoping you will answer that for me. As a member of the “oddball tribe” of native New Yorkers, as you put it, why do you stay? “Decade upon decade, as so much of the city that shaped [you] in all of [your] wiseacre, top-of-the-heap eccentricity, is razed and made unrecognizable,” why do you persist in loving a city that “never quite loves you back”? Do you have personal landmarks that you are scared to see vanish? Places that “shimmer with meaning” for you like Griffin’s childhood brownstone? Places you will try to keep alive in memory for your children once they are gone?

John Freeman Gill: For me, the great wonder and pleasure of New York is its combination of richly textured history—much of it visible in the very streetscape as architectural representations of different eras and human enterprises—and the city’s infuriating insistence on tossing away so much of that history in favor of creating whatever is Next. This essential tension between past and future is what makes New York such a marvelous, maddening, unpredictable place to live.

Most people move to New York not to contemplate or immerse themselves in a glorious past—that’s why we go to Rome, and maybe Paris—but to be smack in the middle of a rapidly unfolding future. And I suppose that I stick around for much the same reason: that supremely provincial sense New Yorkers tend to have that this is where it’s happening. I have a great reverence for the city’s history and period architecture, but New York has never been about the past. New York’s essential, signature characteristic is change. And frankly, change is also life’s signature characteristic, no matter how hard we may try to attain some fixed position of contentment. So for me, New York City embodies both my own past and the impossibility of ever truly revisiting that past. Living here is an acceptance of change, but enough of the streetscape of my youth survives that I do get the great pleasure of periodically rounding a corner and unexpectedly finding myself face to face with a much-loved architectural touchstone that conjures up powerful, immersive memories. At the same time, I do love the palimpsest the city presents. On sites where favorite buildings or businesses have been destroyed and replaced, there’s always that bittersweet frisson of recognition when you stop to gaze at a ghost that once occupied a particular corner.

On a more personal level, I stay because so many of the people I love are here: family and friends, and my wife’s family and friends. And now our three kids are New Yorkers, too, with a whole constellation of their own New Yorker friends. I don’t think any of us feels we could find the city’s dynamism and diversity and irreverence in many other places. New York is big and multifarious enough that it often manages to feel both familiar and new at the same time. 

Rail: Would you call The Gargoyle Hunters nostalgic? There is certainly a Proustian element to it, where fragments of buildings function as madeleines. One of the book’s most moving moments for me is Griffin’s father’s impassioned evocation of the visceral memory unleashed by one of the lost stone eagles from the original Penn Station. “… for Chrissakes! I took my first steps into New York under it when I was a kid. Everyone did! I passed under it as an adult every time I went to get a slice of cheesecake at the Savarin coffee shop inside!” Does your novel want to recapture lost time? Can it?

Gill: I don’t think the novel has any illusions about the possibility of recapturing lost time, but Griffin’s father, Nick, certainly does. Nick is nostalgic not only for irretrievable moments of his own past but also for a past he’s never known—the late-19th-century era when immigrant stone carvers came over from Europe and incised their imaginations into our city in the form of whimsical and beautiful architectural ornaments. Nick is a transplant from rural New England, and I think sometimes people who come to New York in search of something that’s been missing from their lives are even more nostalgic about the city’s former incarnations than those of us who grew up here, who tend to be accustomed to our hometown’s constant self-reinvention, even as we mourn it.

Still, for many of us, buildings do serve as touchstones of individual and collective history. Buildings do function as Proustian madeleines that transport us back to an earlier time, inhabited by earlier versions of ourselves. And I might even argue that the feelings evoked by changes to the streetscape can be even more complex than a search for lost time. Buildings, unlike moments, can persist across years or decades or centuries, which means that their sudden destruction tends to send us scurrying off in search not only of lost time but also of a lost sense of place. That’s why we so often feel a deeply personal pain when a favorite edifice—or diner or bar or hardware store—is shuttered or demolished. While memories, by definition, concern themselves with the past, buildings, as long as they survive, beguile us with an illusory permanence by traveling through time with us … until they don’t. Indeed, Griffin’s older sister, Quigley, is so unsettled by the churning transformation of her urban environment that on the very first page of the book she announces that she’s finally moving out of town for good because, “I’m tired of being homesick in my own hometown.”

Rail: Griffin’s dad refers to his father-son team as “rubble rousers” since the pair of them “rescue” artifacts from condemned and not-so-condemned buildings all over the city. This notion gives the book the magical quality of a caper. Many scenes are laugh-out-loud funny. But they are also uncomfortable. Griffin lives his rubble-rousing adventures with excitement, tenderness for his father, guilt, and skepticism. It’s a heady mix for a kid. But his voice never feels too knowing. How did you make him so astute without making him wise beyond his years?

Gill: Ron Charles of The Washington Post described Griffin as a precocious innocent, and I think that’s spot-on. He’s a very New York kid—sophisticated for his age, and quite a smart-aleck, but not as worldly as he’d like to believe. It’s 1974, both his family and city are fracturing violently, and his parents’ abdication of responsibility leaves him with the impossible burden of trying to hold it all together. Though he is game to try just about anything, he is in no way prepared for all the challenges he confronts. Exceptional as he is in some ways, he is still a child, placed in vulnerable positions that no child should have to endure. So I think he’s a pretty capable little fellow, but I tried to be very disciplined about not giving him knowledge or perception inappropriate to his age. Since I also grew up in New York in the 1970s—I was born about six years later than Griffin—I used my memory of my own limited understanding in those days as a bullshit detector. For example, I don’t think I ever learned about anorexia until I was 16. So when 13-year-old Griffin is told that a girl he loves suffers from that eating disorder, I show him grappling with this new information: “I'd never heard of anorexia,” Griffin says. “Everyone knew that chubby girls like Quig ate too much, and that was a problem, but I’d always thought the skinny girls were doing just fine.” This is a sensitive child coming up against the limits of his experience, and trying to make sense of it all.

I thought a great deal about how much critical distance to give the narrator of this novel. It’s basically a first-person frame narrative, with a prologue and closing chapter told by a middle-aged narrator looking back on his early teenage years in 1974—75. And occasionally, usually at the beginning of chapters, the older narrator will make his presence felt with an observation that highlights the distance between the narrator, fiftyish Griffin, and the character, 13-year-old Griffin. But it was always important to me that the bulk of the story be told from the limited perspective of the child. I wanted to see the world through the eyes of a clever but inexperienced boy who often understands less about what he’s going through than the reader does. I tried not to break the spell too much with knowing winks from the adult narrator. I wanted the reader to experience Griffin’s terrors and exultations along with him.

It’s trickier to pull off these dual perspectives of the first-person narrator than it may seem. While writing the book, I read piles of novels with all manner of child characters and narrators, and probably learned from them all. One of the most helpful was To Kill a Mockingbird, a fabulous book I read back in middle school and then revisited while I was working on The Gargoyle Hunters. I had remembered Mockingbird as being told by a young Scout, but in fact the book opens with grown-up Scout reflecting with adult perspective on her childhood and hometown and ancestors, then narrows the focus down to the experiences of the young character. Now and then, the adult narrator pokes her head into the story with a bit of commentary that reminds us that the events are being described from a distance of years. My novel does something similar, though I generally keep my adult narrator at a greater remove in order to give Griffin’s adventures as much immediacy as possible. And while Mockingbird ends with a scene of Scout as a nine-year-old child, my final chapter brings Griffin’s story right up to the current day and even casts an eye toward the future.

Rail: My favorite passage in the book is about “Poignant Repairs.” Griffin’s father’s assistant Zev describes the way people, often kids, will take unremarkable broken objects and “fix” them, not by restoring them to their original form, but by making them into something new: “Restoration is basically a fancy word for trying to hit rewind.… This is actually kind of the opposite. It’s a kind of idiosyncratic creation that carries within it a pretty violent implied destruction—the destruction of any possibility of returning the object to its former state.” This sounds so much to me like the forging, by trial and error, of Griffin’s wonderful personality. Did you mean it as a coming-of-age metaphor?

Gill: I try to give metaphors enough room to breathe that readers can bring their own interpretations to them, which you’ve done here so wonderfully. I love your take on “Poignant Repairs.” Certainly I felt the resonance of the notion that damaged people can transform themselves in unexpected ways, but while writing that passage I was thinking mostly about Griffin’s relationship with Dani, a girl in the grade above him. Griffin clearly loves her, but he has done some pretty horrible physical—and presumably emotional—damage to her by persuading her to stick her wet tongue to the freezing copper surface of the Statue of Liberty. He is so mortified by his own destructive behavior that he fears that he is beyond redemption and that his relationship with Dani is beyond salvaging. So when Zev introduces him to his concept of Poignant Repairs—that the “damage [is] the opportunity” to create something new and vital and original—Griffin suddenly realizes that this philosophy might well apply not only to objects but also to relationships. “Without damage, there’s no discovery,” Zev tells him. Griffin doesn’t reply to Zev, but the chapter ends right there, and as the next chapter opens, Griffin is sneaking into Dani’s West End Avenue apartment building to discover whether the unlikely repair of their damaged relationship might just be possible.

Rail: One of the many ways your novel makes the city’s ornamentation come alive is through evocation of the stone carvers as human beings and musings on their motivations as they worked. In one scene, as Griffin and his dad are combing rubble for carved keystone portraits, they find the face of a woman who is “transcendently ordinary…I mean she's a regular person. She’s not Athena or Diana or the Queen of Spades.” Griffin’s father explains that the carvers sculpted people they knew, "barkeeps and cops and dockworkers,” and women they had crushes on. What a marvelous way to imbue your novel with history, John. You have achieved the fine balance between edification and story. This can’t have been easy! You are of course steeped in architectural knowledge, and I learned a lot reading the book, but never did it feel heavy-handed. Even when Griffin’s dad was pontificating, the stonework he described felt organic to the story. Was it hard to chisel your own mass of research and expertise? Were you tempted to include more than you did?

Gill: Well, there used to be more architectural history in the book. My editor, Jordan Pavlin at Knopf, was very helpful in pointing out places the architectural information could be pruned back. But right from the beginning, I worked very, very hard to get the urban history across without making it feel like homework. One of the most effective ways to do this, I found, was through dialogue—sometimes with conflicting viewpoints and interruptions from different characters. The moment you have a character—usually Griffin’s father in this book, but sometimes his father’s right-hand man, Zev—telling Griffin a story in colloquial language, it makes the information feel more like an organic conversation than an expository history lesson.

In the case of the brownstone carving you mention, “the transcendently ordinary” woman sculpted into a keystone, it was easy for me to see that portrait as a real person because I had a particular real-life carving in mind, and a personal relationship with that carving. I live down the street from the Brooklyn Museum, which has the largest collection of salvaged New York City architectural sculptures in the world. Unfortunately, many carvings and castings in this world-class collection have been unceremoniously exiled to a sort of refugee camp behind the museum, bounded by a chain-link fence and completely unprotected from the elements since around 2000. I wrote an exposé about this sorry state of affairs for The Atlantic in 2010, and since then I’ve watched in sorrow as some of these sculptures have deteriorated badly due to continued neglect. Since these sculpted faces are my neighbors, I’ve gone and visited them from time to time. Two in particular have come to seem like old friends: a pair of brownstone women with amused, puckish facial expressions. The two are stored side by side near the back of the fence by a small hill. They are sculpted in a similar, playful style, leading me to speculate that they once adorned neighboring doorways or windows somewhere, and I’ve come to think of them as sisters or besties. Over the years, I’ve tromped back there in all kinds of weather, sometimes through mud and snow, to visit this wry pair. One of the women is described in the novel as “a squirrel-cheeked lady wearing a crooked smile and a necklace of inelegant bulbous beads.” I also note that her nose is missing. Sadly, this too is based on truth. Brownstone is a notoriously flaky, fragile stone that should never be stored with a carved visage facing the sky the way these two have been, and in the years I’ve been visiting these keystones behind the Brooklyn Museum, I’ve watched, with growing dismay, as their faces have deteriorated and flaked away. The museum has basically, through malign neglect, afflicted that poor 19th-century woman with a totally avoidable case of leprosy. Her days are probably numbered, so the least I could do, I figured, was give her a safe and enduring home in the pages of my book.


Hilary Reyl

HILARY REYL is most recently the author of Kids Like Us from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.