Thinking Inside the Box

The Sky Below
By Stacey D’Erasmo
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 271 pages, $24

What’s funny about Gabriel Collins, the narrator of Stacey D’Erasmo’s The Sky Below, is that even though he does many bizarre or risky things (as a teenager, he pilfers trinkets from neighbors’ homes, deals drugs and accepts blow jobs for cash; as an adult, he refuses a much-needed blood transfusion, sets up house on a Mexican commune and wears a giant pair of feathered wings and hides all his money in his freezer), he has one or two points in common with countless people in this city: He moves to New York with a dream of making art and harbors a lust for real estate.

First, the art. Gabe makes boxes, à la Joseph Cornell, and puts various of his stolen goodies and drawings and found objects in them. It’s only natural; as a kid, he stowed his stolen booty and stacks of $20 bills in boxes under his bed, and generally seems to find security (his dad walked out when he was a boy) in compartmentalization and secrecy. But also, being a box-maker and calling himself an artist—one who never, in the course of the book, finds any kind of success—telegraphs as much about Gabe as any of the more direct and concrete details of his life

Cornell is one of those artists every young person discovers, and proceeds to believe existed only for them, to inspire only them. His boxes are alluring and magical—no argument there—but they’re also deceptive; an aspiring artist knows that a Pollock would actually be impossible to re-create, but a Cornell box … could it be done even better? It’s an art form for the fundamentally self-involved and, at least occasionally, the talentless. Gabe may have some talent, though he’s certainly self-involved. He goes so far as to devote an entire wall of his rent-controlled East Village apartment to his boxes, so that he may better contemplate, as often as possible, his life as told in his art.

But “artist” is just one of Gabe’s hats. He earns tidy bundles of cash working as a ghostwriter for a V. C. Andrews–like old lady, pumping out pages of purple prose in exchange for envelopes stuffed with cash. He’s the boyfriend of a rich, cultured businessman, eating fancy meals and attending the ballet. He has a day job as an obit writer for a free paper, where he spends most of his time gazing alternately out into ground zero and over the East River into Brooklyn Heights, where he heads every Tuesday to admire a small wood frame house that increasingly becomes the main object of his obsession and, ultimately, his main work of art.

The house is on one of those little lanes in the most beautiful part of the Heights, where the street names themselves are so charming that even the most hardened hipster might fall in love: Pineapple, Orange, Cranberry, Willow, Love Lane. Gabe’s house, a historic wood frame single-family dwelling, is owned outright by an African-American family who, to Gabe’s delight, put it up for sale, by owner. Gabe, with his freezer full of loot, goes after it, but finds that he is far, far short of the asking price. (Gabe’s surprise when he discovers that the house would cost over $1 million is another one of those details Ms. D’Erasmo deploys to show how isolated and bizarre her main character is.) He believes that he can round up the cash if he has a little more time, and so, to thwart other buyers, he releases some exotic termites into the house’s foundations. It’s less a work of insanity than, again, self-involvement. Gabe believes the house is his, and so any means of getting it is justified.

If it wasn’t clear up to this point, Gabe is not a very nice person.

Many things happen after the house infestation (which doesn’t work out exactly the way Gabe planned). He gets sick. He goes to Mexico in search of his father. He believes he is becoming a bird and actually sort of does, and he also sort of heals himself. He makes art with a function, for someone other than himself.

Gabe’s story is both plausible and fantastic; even when reality is stretched thread-thin, it’s engaging, thanks to Stacey D’Erasmo’s prose, which manages to be both elegant and economical. Like Cornell’s Untitled (Medici Princess) or A Swan Lake for Tamara Toumanova, The Sky Below is an object to be admired.

Hillary Frey is a senior editor at The Observer. She can be reached at Thinking Inside the Box