The Door-Man

Written by Peter Wheelwright
Review by Susan Lowell

The Door-Man is a complicated novel comprising human and natural history, fact and fiction—and large quantities of all of them. It is strongly regional, mostly set in New York City and upstate New York. Based on historic events, its timeline encompasses most of the 20th century, and its elaborate chart of family relationships includes both “lineages by birth” and “lineages by belief & circumstance.”

The town of Gilboa is located in the Catskills southwest of Albany. In the 1920s, while constructing a dam and reservoir to supplement the NYC water supply, workers discovered many enormous, fossilized trees dating from the Devonian period (about 385 million years ago): the world’s oldest known petrified forest. The episode caused contention and had personal and political repercussions involving a wide cast of country and city characters, who provided the inspiration for Wheelwright’s ambitious novel.

Our narrator is Piedmont Livingston Kinsolver III (one of many memorable names here, including Lincoln Lincoln, Reasonable Pelt, and Rembrandt Stikkey). He’s both an actual doorman near Central Park and a man who opens doors into the intricate story of three interrelated families both scarred and enlightened by the flooding of Gilboa. The novel jumps back and forth in time between 1917 and 2013, with occasional glances at the Devonian period.

In a nutshell (or a fern spore), The Door-Man reminds us that everything is connected, from a glass of water in Manhattan to the origins of life on earth.

The nephew of environmental guru and writer Peter Matthiessen, Wheelwright is something of a Renaissance man: architect, professor, and novelist. In The Door-Man he has created an impressive structure of fiction and nonfiction, both of which contribute to its power, grace and truth.