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Book Review

Page-turner draws on medieval lore

By Chuck Leddy
September 1, 2008
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The Gargoyle: A Novel
By Andrew Davidson
Doubleday, 480 pp., $25.95

Andrew Davidson's sometimes cringe-inducing yet spellbinding debut novel, "The Gargoyle," mixes medieval symbolism, Christian allegory, and a Dantean journey to the underworld in order to tell a transcendent love story. Davidson's unnamed narrator begins the tale in a horrific, fiery car crash. During his multi-month hospital stay, he's visited by a psychiatric patient named Marianne Engel. She tells him she's known him for seven centuries and gradually reveals their amazing back story. Davidson's narrative shifts between the present (focusing on his narrator's painful recovery) and the fourteenth-century romance between Marianne and the narrator.

As bad as Davidson's prose can be, his story is an unalloyed escapist fantasy, a page-turning adventure that will keep you reading well past bedtime. At times, Davidson writes like an English major obsessed with medieval literature, yet his narrative energy is an irresistible force.

When the hospitalized narrator likens his pain to a snake, we get the first of many undergraduate, purple passages from Davidson: "the snake inhabited each inch of my spine . . . the sibilant sermons of the snake as she discoursed upon the disposition of my sinner's soul seemed ceaseless." Later, the narrator (a former porn star) describes one of his nurses: "she'd rather be in a bar teasing a horny frat boy . . . She was a naughty, naughty girl and it crossed my mind that she might've become a nurse simply so she would have the whole bad-girl-in-a-nurse's-outfit look working for her." Elsewhere Davidson colorfully describes a dog with "its head bobbing around like a plastic hula dancer on the dashboard of a pimp's car."

For all his faults as a prose stylist, Davidson is an enthusiastic, skilled storyteller. He understands how to build narrative tension, how to shift seamlessly from present to past, how to combine fantasy elements (gargoyles, mystic visions, etc.) with realistic details, and how to leave readers with a cliffhanger at the end of chapters. Davidson has obviously absorbed the cultural landscape of medieval Christianity: his debt to Dante is obvious throughout.

As the hospitalized narrator recovers, Marianne tells him about their centuries-spanning love. She'd been a nun in a 14th-century German monastery when the narrator, then a wounded soldier, arrived. Marianne nursed him back to health and the two, in an act of forbidden love, escape the monastery. The narrator's enemies hunt him down, an adventure tale Davidson adeptly plays for all its dramatic worth.

Modern-day Marianne sculpts gargoyles and tells epic love stories. In one colorful tale, she describes an Icelandic Viking returning to his beloved wife after a conquest: "Svanhildr rushed to the shore and jumped into Einarr's waiting arms. She kissed him passionately, then punched him twice in the face, and then gently kissed the blood off his lips." These kind of picaresque details suffuse Marianne's stories.

The skeptical narrator begins to believe Marianne's stories and, predictably, he falls in love with her (again): "Being burned was the best thing that ever happened to me because it brought you. I wanted to die but you filled me up with so much love that it overflowed and I couldn't help but love you back." Davidson's book is a bit like Marianne's love: we don't quite buy into it at first, but its pure relentlessness pulls us in, and we surrender to it.

The novelist and critic George Orwell once perfectly summed up the appeal of "good bad books" like "The Gargoyle": "The existence of good bad literature - the fact that one can be amused or excited or even moved by a book that one's intellect simply refuses to take seriously - is a reminder that art is not the same thing as cerebration."

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

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