A teenager gets wise to Manhattan, and his father, via the city’s architectural ornaments.
Griffin, the narrator of Gill’s debut novel, recalls the year he was 13 years old and navigating the ruins of his parents’ broken marriage. His mother is taking in boarders at their home on 89th Street between Third and Lex to make ends meet, while his father works in antiques restoration. When dad notices Griffin’s ability to squeeze into small spaces, he’s recruited into the dark side of the family business, sneaking into the city’s historic buildings and chipping and sawing off gargoyles and other decorations from facades. The book is set during 1974 and 1975, with the crime-ridden city at the brink of bankruptcy, so the pair’s lawlessness feels like part of the landscape, though Dad insists he’s “liberating” civic treasures from the inevitable wrecking ball. (The novel’s poignant prologue is set in the New Jersey dumping grounds of the ruins of old Penn Station.) Gill, who’s written often on New York’s architectural history, understands buildings from wrought-iron panels to terra cotta sculptures, which makes for some detailed and engaging set pieces, like the pair’s death-defying, dark-of-night effort to remove a gargoyle from the top of the Woolworth Building or Griffin’s exploring the innards of the Statue of Liberty with a romantic interest. But as Griffin looks back on his youth from the present day, his (and Gill’s) nostalgia feels awkwardly stronger for buildings than for loved ones. Dad is purposefully Sphinx-like, but Griffin’s mother, sister, and friends rarely feel like more than incidental figures relative to the novel’s true passion. Even so, the story enlivens in the closing chapters, which set the depths of Dad’s obsession against the arrival of a hurricane, suggesting that our best efforts to save our civic treasures will always have to reckon with nature taking its course.
A portrait of 1970s New York that’s sturdy if sometimes stiff.