At the start of "The Gargoyle," a transportingly unhinged debut novel by Andrew Davidson, the book's caustic narrator explains the fiery accident that destroyed what had once been his extremely beautiful body.
How bad was the accident? Horrible. So bad that he suggests the reader stick a hand on a hot stove to get a frisson of what he endured. He recalls the "unholy yoga" of his car as it flew out of control. He describes how "out of my nose crawled a drop of blood, which jumped expectantly into the happy young flames springing to life beneath me." He notes that a bottle of bourbon leaked onto his lap, caught fire, burned away his penis and left his scrotum looking "for all the world like a tumbleweed on the abandoned street of a ghost town." This was an ugly accident all right.
How ghastly is his present condition? Ouch. He ticks off painful medical procedures (debridement, escharotomy, jejunostomy) and the use of maggots to remove his dead skin. He speaks of being "wrapped in my deadflesh body bag." He says that when a badly burned man winks, the sight recalls "a housefly struggling to get out of a toilet bowl."
Then there are the professional setbacks: The fire, which has required him to endure many skin grafts, put an end to his career as a porn movie star. "The irony was not lost upon me that after making all my money in the skin trade, I was now trading all my money for skin," he bitterly explains, once he has been transformed into the gargoyle of this book's title.
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How grim are his prospects? Maybe not as bad as they initially sound. As soon as this book has finished wallowing in degradation, things start looking up.
Along comes a beautiful, mysterious visitor to the burn ward, a woman named Marianne Engel who is notable for several reasons: "those unsolvable eyes," "that riotously entangled hair" and that claim of having been born sometime around 1300 and raised in a German monastery. She is strangely but brightly chatty. ("That growth makes me think of the boils that come with the Black Plague.") She is quite sure that she and the burn victim were close friends in their previous lives.
How convincing is she? Well, she knows her medieval German texts, and she knows her Icelandic lore. (One of Davidson's sources in this exotically diverse book is the Web site vikinganswerlady.com.) She knows what a scriptorium's armarius is. She knows how to carve gargoyles with great passion ("Gargoyles ache to be born") and to contemplate the Eternal Godhead and its relationship to human creatureliness.
Best of all, she knows that nobody has ever answered in the negative to the question "Would you like to see my other tattoos?"
Seeing the angel wings on Marianne's bare back, the burn victim starts to melt. He also likes Marianne's captivating conversational style. ("For now, may I tell you a story about a dragon?") He wonders if, how and why she is crazy. He finds a reassuring internal consistency to the string of lovelorn fairy tales she tells him, and to the 14th-century biography she claims is her own. He finds it fitting that she wants to take a badly burned man on a guided tour of Dante's circles of hell.
Pause for a moment to consider what kind of book "The Gargoyle" is shaping up to be.
It has been heavily influenced by some of Davidson's own favorite authors, who include Vladimir Nabokov, Patrick Susskind and (go figure) the playful parodist Jasper Fforde. The free-range erudition of books including "Possession" and "The Name of the Rose" also come to mind. And the wearying but popular literary story-within-a-story format is used here to incorporate a wild, seemingly random array of tricks and tangents. But Davidson binds them together with vigorous and impressive narrative skill.
What are some of this book's ingredients doing here? Did it really need two sets of acrostics, one made from the first letter of each chapter, the other made from the last letter? Is Dante's hell, once Marianne begins leading her centuries-old lover on a hallucinatory guided tour, really so full of different typefaces? Why does the book pause to include long, voluptuous menus with items like "a plump eggplant's fecund belly pregnant with stuffing?" Is that a reference to a centuries-old pregnancy or simply another nod to Davidson's richly varied appetites?
Only these things are certain: Although "The Gargoyle" is defiantly uncategorizable, Doubleday is hard at work taming it. (Suggested question for book club group discussions: "What sort of tailor-made suffering might Dante have invented for you?")
And it turns out to be as seductive as it is overweening. You need not know that Davidson shaped Marianne's fables with an emphasis on the Four Elements (earth, air, fire and water) to grasp their romanticism. But that knowledge does explain why a glassblower (i.e. blower of air) is buried alive (i.e. placed beneath earth) in one of them.
Certainly it doesn't take a classical scholar to see where the narrator's heart is heading. How godless and hopeless will he remain? Not very.
"What an unexpected reversal of fate," he says. "Only after my skin was burned away did I finally become able to feel." And: "While I was now surrounded by far fewer people than before, they were far better people." And inevitably: "Being burned was the best thing that ever happened to me because it brought you."
So for all those who enter here, there is no need to abandon hope. Lessons are learned, love is found, spirits are restored and faith is revealed, all in the overheated caldron of Davidson's imagination.