Highly intoxicated and driving on a curving road, a man sees a group of arrows fly from the roadside trees right toward him. Within seconds he has driven his car off a cliff and is trapped inside it, engulfed in flames. He is saved from death when the vehicle takes one last tumble into some water, but his body is burned beyond recognition and his skin and muscle burned beyond repair. This unnamed individual, a pornographer and drug addict, is the protagonist and titular gargoyle, the anti-hero at the center of Andrew Davidson's debut novel.
Though the starting point of THE GARGOYLE is a sad and reckless life fueled by cocaine, bourbon and meaningless sex, or sex for profit, this is a love story of epic proportions, one that spans centuries and geography. Or, perhaps it is a love story about redemption and the power of love despite obstacles in the here and now. Maybe it is both.
The object of the man's love is Marianne Engel, an eccentric artist who shows up at his hospital bedside. It is quickly apparent that she is a patient there --- not from the burn unit but from the psychiatric unit. Even after her release, the mysterious Marianne continues to visit, bringing elaborate meals and telling even more elaborate stories. As his body is recovering, rebuilt by surgeries and strengthened by therapy, Marianne shares, bit by bit, what she claims is their 700-year history as lovers.
Marianne's story begins in a medieval German convent where she was dedicated to God and, because of her almost supernatural gift with languages, trained as a scribe and translator. She has never been outside her safe religious world until she leaves the order to run away with a severely burned mercenary whose recovery she oversees. She helps him escape the execution awaiting him, and they build a life in Mainz until their past violently catches up with them.
Our newly reformed narrator, a self-taught scholar of sorts, is, at first, merely intrigued by Marianne's tale. It is obvious that Marianne is either schizophrenic or bi-polar, or both. But despite the implausibility of her stories, and the facts he learns about the delusions of her mental illness, her kindness, spirit and stories draw him in, and soon the love she professes for him is reciprocated. She also tells four other love stories besides their own, all heartbreaking and beautiful, which help to build tension in the novel and point readers toward the end they can easily anticipate.
In THE GARGOYLE, characters are always transforming, just as the raw rock Marianne works with are transformed into sculptures. The narrator moves from faithlessness to faith and from loneliness to love. The love depicted here is most often one of literal self-sacrifice: lovers meet violent deaths but in doing so are able to save another. True love, Davidson seems to suggest, is both doomed and holy. This conundrum is just one of several throughout the novel. Contemporary questions about commitment and relationships, love and life, are intermixed with classically rendered tales that sometimes illuminate and sometimes confuse.
From porno sets to medieval cloisters, from hospital rooms to artists' studios, with a trip to Dante's hell to boot, THE GARGOYLE is lovely to read and thought-provoking as well. It is a complex and ambitious story but a readable one. There are the usual frustrating plot devices of first novels --- the characters aren't always likable, and some of the religious or mystical ideas are simplistic --- but overall Davidson is able to draw readers in with his interesting premise and keep them (for almost 500 pages) with good storytelling.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 22, 2011