This fantastic debut novel starts off with a handsome, reckless, drug addicted pornographer getting into a fiery crash after his car careens off a hilltop road. Within minutes he has lost everything-looks, career, money- all up in flames. The reader can almost see his skin bubble, smell his flesh burn, and feel his horror and pain.
He wakes up scorched weeks later in an ICU burn unit. Following are gruesome scenes during his burn treatment; excruciating graphic details about pain, debridement, skin grafting, and surgeries. In an ironic twist of fate, he has had a penectomy- the pornographer spilled alcohol in his lap shortly before the fire and his penis was burnt to a crisp. If not for his wry sense of humor it would have been difficult to get through these pages. His doctors, nurses, and physical therapists are committed to his recovery and work tirelessly over the course of many months to bring him back to health.
This man’s past isn’t pretty- a childhood spent with neglectful drug addicted foster parents, followed by success in a porn career, and a string of meaningless relationships has left him feeling empty. He has no family and few visitors. His production company collapses without him and goes bankrupt. The only thing that keeps our hero going are thoughts of suicide after his release. After all, his days are filled with suffering, and physically he’s a monster- who could ever care about him again?
Enter Marianne Engel- a beautiful, tatooed, passionate psychiatric patient who claims to know him (“I’ve been waiting such a long time”). Is she schizophrenic? Manic-depressive? Does it even matter? He knows she’s crazy but doesn’t care; she’s his only regular visitor, and she tells a great story.
The Gargoyle follows the man’s recovery as he leaves the hospital to move in with Marianne, who offers to finance everything (she’s made buckets of money carving gargoyles, or ‘grotesques’, from slabs of stone, and sells them in a gallery to wealthy collectors). Against the advice of his doctors, he puts his continued care into her hands. Life with Marianne proves to be quite interesting, though, as she goes through manic episodes of intense creativity, and he becomes increasingly dependant on morphine to dull his pain. The novel weaves their current story with medieval tales of romance, legend, mysticism and adventure, of courageous people sacrificing everything they have for true love. Marianne begins to tell him “their” story of when they were lovers in 14th Century Germany and for all his skepticism, in the end he’s persuaded to investigate further.
The only part of the book I wasn’t into was the narrator’s trip through the fires of hell as he withdraws from morphine and releases the “bitchsnake” from his spine. The Christian mythology is dense and confusing at that point and I found myself skimming whole pages because it goes on too long (for me). Other than that one section, which is near the end, I flew through The Gargoyle, enjoying it immensely. It’s a gripping, unique book that I would highly recommend.
Book clubs would have a lot to talk over with this one! For perhaps the most interesting reader’s guide I’ve ever seen, click HERE.
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