A Hand Reached Down To Guide Me by David Gates, book review: Tales of messy existence

Gates' latest storytellers recount the slippage from middle to late-middle age and live in states of lonely dissatisfaction

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The Independent Culture

A hand reached down to Guide Me collects David Gates' 21st-century short fiction so far. While much of it has already been published in high-profile journals such as The Paris Review, the act of anthologising adds a wonderfully achieved novella, "Banishment" and the enjoyable " An Actor Prepares". It also encourages the reader to spot common themes and motifs – life's "million, million little things" as "An Actor Prepares" puts it. These include a habit of freezing marijuana, a fondness for 19th-century fiction (Austen, the Brontës, Dickens), Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and performance: actors, musicians, teachers.

This dramatic tendency finds a voice in Gates' deft first-person narrations. His latest storytellers recount the slippage from middle to late-middle age and live in states of lonely dissatisfaction. A good-looking actor resolves to quit the profession but takes a final job ("An Actor Prepares"). A musician-turned-gardener suffers a nervous breakdown in "Locals".

The knowingly sardonic narrator of "Banishment" meditates on her two marriages in the first of several vivid inter-generational portraits. Having wedded young, to a hunky journalist with potential but little else, she remarries older, falling for a retired architect who not only has accomplished but seems accomplished, as in completed. Sadly, neither this nor his initially attractive facetiousness is any more enduring than number one's latent talent.

Our speaker's flippancy is cruel but also very funny: on honeymoon, she notes "we… saw as many elk as a pair of newly-weds could wish for". But her ironic commentary is both a defence and a flaw. She recognises the shape of her "story" as she puts it, but like other Gates heroes seems powerless to re-write her present into happier shapes: "I'm sorry to end without some note of redemption. See you after the shitshow, I guess."

The hollow echo of religion's consolations resound throughout: there are epiphanies, charity, hell and, in the epigraph, a soul. Gates' narrators know they are speaking into a godless void, but nor are they entirely alone. Whether they are worthy of love is another question.

In the titular story that is a bookend to "Banishment", our narrator, male this time, also confronts ageing, rural isolation, the proximity of death and disappointed ambitions, musical rather than literary. The coolly heart-breaking climax involves a friend who asks to die in his bucolic cabin. The death scene, related with painstaking detail, becomes an existential warning against wasted time: "Whatever became of anything?" asks the dying man. "I should've kept a journal. Fucking years of lost days."

Gates has been described as "elegiac" ("bleak" is another favourite). but he doesn't wallow in things past, instead expressing the wear and tear of messy existence. Whether you read the nicely poised conclusion of A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me as defeated or optimistic, the narrator speaks with the authentic voice of hard-won experience: "I can still sing," he notes. "Having some age on me, maybe I sound more like the real thing."

This could be Gates' own 68-year-old hand reaching down. For he is the real thing, as is illustrated on every page of this sad, hilarious and unflinchingly brilliant book.