Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson








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Andrew Davidson’s debut novel, The Gargoyle, weighs in at 480 pages, and that almost led me to take a pass. I assumed a lack of discipline or editing. I was wrong. Davidson’s writing is crisp, and he has bitten off a huge and complicated structure for his debut. Modern characters are paired with medieval ones, and the story bounces back and forth between the two, under the care of a skeptical narrator, who leads readers toward suspending disbelief while enjoying fine writing and great storytelling. A central theme involves hearts, and on multiple levels, this is a love story that crosses the centuries. Here’s an excerpt, from the modern story, from chapter 2, pp. 28-31:


Dr. Edwards had warned me that the first time I was conscious dur­ing a debridement session would be painful beyond the ability of the morphine to alleviate, even with an increased dosage. But all I heard was "increased dosage," and it brought a smile to my face, although no one could see it under the bandages.

The extra dope started to take effect shortly before I was to be moved, and I was floating on a beautiful high when I heard Dr. Ed­wards' clipped footsteps, from sensible shoes, coming at me from down the hall before she arrived.

Dr. Edwards was, in every way, average looking. Neither pretty nor ugly, she could fix her face to look adequately pleasing but she rarely bothered. Her hair could have had more body if she'd brushed it out each morning, but she usually just pulled it back, perhaps out of practical concerns, as it is hardly advisable for loose strands to fall into burn wounds. She was slightly overweight and if one were to make a guess, it would be a good bet that at some point she'd simply grown tired of counting calories. She looked as if she had grown into her commonness and accepted it; or perhaps she'd decided that, since she was working among burn survivors, too much attention to her appearance might even be an insult.

Dr. Edwards gestured to the orderly she'd brought with her, a ruddy chunk of a man whose muscles flexed when he reached out for me. Together, they transferred me from my bed to a stretcher. I squealed like a stuck pig, learning in a moment just how much my body had grown to accept its stillness.

The burn unit is often the most distant wing of a hospital, be­cause burn victims are so susceptible to infection that they must be kept away from other patients. More important, perhaps, is that the placement minimizes the chance of visitors stumbling across a Ken­tucky Fried Human. The debridement room, I could not help but notice, was in the farthest room of this farthest wing. By the time my session was finished, I realized this was so the other burn pa­tients couldn't hear the screams.

The orderly laid me out on a slanted steel table where warm water, with medical agents added to balance my body chemistry, flowed across the slick surface. Dr. Edwards removed my bandages to expose the bloody pulp of my body. They echoed with flat thuds as she dropped them into a metal bucket. As she washed me, there was disgust in the down-turned edges of her mouth and unhappi­ness in her fingertips. The water flowing over me swirled pink. Then dark pink, light red, dark red. The murky water eddied around the little chunks of my flesh that looked like fish entrails on a cutting board.

All this was but a prelude to the main event.

Debridement is the ripping apart of a person, the cutting away of as much as can possibly be endured. Technically, it is removal of dead or contaminated tissue from a wound so that healthy skin may grow in its place. The word itself comes intact from the French noun dibridement, which literally means "unbridling." The etymol­ogy is easy to construct: the removal of contaminated tissue from the body—the removal of constricting matter—evokes the image of taking the bridle off a horse, as the bridle itself is a constriction. The debrided person shall be set free of the contaminant, as it were.

So much of my skin was damaged that removing the putrefy­ing tissue meant more or less scrubbing away everything. My blood squirted up onto Dr. Edwards, leaving streams of red across her gowned chest, as she used a razorlike apparatus to take the dermis off my body, not unlike the way a vegetable peeler removes the skin from food.

Dr. Edwards made long— No, that's too formal. Our situation made us more intimate than the cruelest of lovers, so why not use her given name? Nan made long swooping passes over my back. I could hear the blade as it slid along my body, disengaging the skin. The only way she'd know that she'd reached the good tissue was to actually slice into it. If I screamed in pain, she had burrowed deeply enough to find functioning nerve endings. As Blake wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: "You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough."

Nan deposited the thin sheets of my flesh in the same metal bucket that held my dirty bandages. It was like seeing myself disap­pear, the flags of my existence being blown away a millimeter at a time. The pain, mixed with the morphine, caused the most interest­ing images to flash through my mind: Senator Joe McCarthy bellow­ing "Better dead than red"; a carpenter assembling the crosses upon which the crucified would be nailed; dissection in biology class, with eighth-grade scalpels cutting into frog stomachs.

Once I was fully debrided, the exposed sites needed to be covered with grafts, be they cadaver or pig. It never mattered much, because my body rejected them all. This was expected, as the grafts were never meant to be permanent; they were there mostly to prevent infection.

During my stay in the hospital, I was skinned alive over and over. In many ways debridement is more overwhelming than the original burning because, whereas the accident came as a surprise, I always knew when a debridement was scheduled. I would lie in the skele­ton's belly and dread each future sweep of the knife, previewing it a hundred times in my imagination for each actual occurrence.

The dispensing of morphine was self-regulated—to "empower" me, they said—and I worked that button furiously. But there was a goddamn block on the overall amount so I couldn't overdose myself so much for empowerment.


Davidson is a talented writer, and those readers willing to take a chance on a debut novel will be rewarded richly after reading The Gargoyle.


Steve Hopkins, September 20, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the October 2008 issue of Executive Times


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