A man drives off a cliff, drunk, with a bottle of bourbon sitting in his lap. The car crashes and burns, and along with horrific third degree burns over most of his body, the man’s penis is completely singed off when the bourbon fans the flames. The horrific description of the crash and the result take up the first five pages of the book. And you’re hooked.
Our narrator is a former porn star and producer — once beautiful and astonishingly well hung, now unrecognizable and unable to have intercourse.
From that point, the book takes us into the hospital where the man must undergo a series of tortuous debridements, skin grafts, surgeries, therapies, and later, operations, if he is ever to regain even a semblance of his old life back. “Following my accident, I plumped up like a freshly roasted wiener,” he writes, “my skin cracking to accommodate the expanding meat. The doctors, with their hungry scalpels, hastened the process with a few quick slices. The procedure is called an escharotomy, and it gives the swelling tissue the freedom to expand.”
He will always be disfigured, however, and a source of disgust and fright in those who look at him. It is no wonder that his first idea is to get just enough better to kill himself. Is this a tale of despair? Of punishment for a life led in hedonism and selfishness? The author/narrator further regales us of the story of his sad and dispiriting growing up, and what it was that led him to a life as a pornographer. He wakes from a two month coma and wants to cry but his tear ducts have been burnt shut. Soon he is on his way to being hooked on morphine, a substance he may use, along with razor blades, sleeping pills, a rope — whatever he can get his hands on — when the time is right to take himself out when the time comes. It is hard to know just what to expect.
But perhaps this is not all there is: in those first few pages, we also get a hint that things will not be so simple. The narrator teases us with the beginnings of a tale about a 13th century monastery. We know there is much more to come.
His primary physician and the nurses who tend to him seem to want him to live and to want to live much more than he does. Eventually a shrink and a physical therapist visit him. But it is a visitor named Marianne Engle, who appears suddenly in the burn ward, who will be his most important visitor. Possibly quite mad, a brilliant sculptures of gargoyles, and possessed of knowledge of a former existence in which the narrator and she figured quite prominently, Marianne begins to weave a series of tales that, like those of Scheherazade, keep our narrator interested enough to wish for the next and the next and the next visit.
The tales are all over the map: from Italy in 1347 to the romance between a British noblewoman and a farmer to Iceland in its infancy. Each story is fascinating on its own. But weaved between those stories and the present, Marianne tells the story of her first life, as a nun in the 1300s and the first translator of Dante’s Inferno into German. She informs our narrator that they had been lovers in that previous life, and, over the course of the novel, she lays out her evidence.
The rich details, the absorbing and sometimes over-the-top writing, the meticulous descriptions of bodies, foods, places, moments, all make this a literary novel with a remarkable twist.
The Gargoyle is a powerful love story, a fascinating history lesson, a fabulous fairy tale, and an interesting discussion of Dante’s Inferno, all wrapped up in a man’s tale of regaining his will to live and what it ultimately costs him.