“The Gargoyle Hunters” author John Freeman Gill. Photo: Derek Shapton
The ever-changing and inexorable evolution of New York City is as much the central character of John Freeman Gill’s debut novel “The Gargoyle Hunters” as his quirky protagonists. As a journalist who specializes in writing about architecture and real estate, Gill has perfected the art of architectural description and portrays with loving precision the buildings of Tribeca and others in the city that we take for granted.
Our guides are 13-year-old Griffin, an aimless boy, and his architecturally obsessed father whose trade is salvaging sculptures including gargoyles from buildings on the verge of demolition, or doing some light-fingered preservation for structures that are in no danger at all. Early on, he urges his son to pay attention to the wonders around him: “You are not going to be another of those blinkered goddamn New Yorkers who walk around town staring at their shoes, or worse, have their eyes so fixed on whatever goal they’re hurrying towards that they never see the city around them.”
This is 1970s New York, before smartphone zombies who never look up from their devices even to cross the road. There’s clearly a large dose of autobiographical detail here, including the location of Griffin’s home. (Gill grew up in a similar Upper East Side brownstone.) The fictional boy lives here with his mother, sister and a cast of bizarre lodgers taken in to help pay the mortgage.
His father, meanwhile, lives in a crumbling loft in Tribeca, terra incognita to Griffin at the start of the novel. The “pioneer” days of the neighborhood as it transitioned from warehouse district to artist outpost are vividly portrayed and there are many local references to landmarks and familiar sites, such as Morgan’s market at Reade and Hudson, are still here. The Italian restaurant Sole di Capri on Church Street also gets a shout…