Jernigan & A Hand Reached Down To Guide Me, Both by David Gates - Book review: Once more into the abyss for a master of messy awfulness

Serpent’s Tail, £8.99 each

Doug Johnstone
Friday 14 August 2015 15:58
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Brilliant writers get forgotten about all the time. Take the case of the American author David Gates. Gates was launched into the literary limelight with his coruscating debut novel Jernigan in 1991. Fans included Joseph Heller, Jay McInerney, and Nick Hornby, the book was acclaimed around the world, and it was subsequently nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

After a gap of seven years Gates delivered his second novel, Preston Falls, an equally brilliant and equally brutal piece of modern Americana, followed quickly by a short story collection, The Wonders of the Invisible World, in 1999. And then nothing. As a fan of his work, it was infuriating. I would go to book events or parties and bang on about him, to be met with blank faces. His books fell out of print here in the UK, but I kept buying second-hand copies to give to people.

But now, Gates is back. After a gap of 16 years, we have a new collection of short stories as well as a reissue of that seminal debut novel, both courtesy of the forward thinking indie publisher Serpent’s Tail.

And it is an absolute delight to be back in his masterful hands. Reading David Gates is far from an uncomplicated experience; his writing is dark, bitter, hilarious, truthful and complex, full of emotional turmoil and damaged characters, deeply flawed people doing pretty unspeakable things to themselves and others, and yet the self-aware flickers of humour, the knowing nods to the frailty of human existence, make him utterly compulsive.

Re-reading Jernigan, I was struck all over again at how brutal and brilliant it is. The author Stuart Evers, in his insightful and passionate foreword to this new edition, claims that it deserves to be rediscovered in a similar fashion to Stoner or Revolutionary Road. While I agree with that sentiment entirely, Jernigan feels like a more powerful piece of writing than those books, a howl into the abyss, a very modern American rage against the indignities of life and death.

Peter Jernigan is our eponymous anti-hero, a widower with a teenage son who somehow stumbles into a relationship with his son’s girlfriend’s mother, Martha. Jernigan is still full of grief and guilt about his wife’s death, and Martha has plenty of her own baggage, and so the four of them become a full-on dysfunctional family. Jernigan is drinking heavily from the get-go, and that only gets worse, and the majority of the novel is taken up with his descent into alcoholic despair.

If that sounds heavy going, it is tempered by Jernigan’s pitch-black comedy regarding his own situation. His voice is the thing that drives the novel; highly educated and constantly over-thinking, he is repeatedly torn between self-loathing at his own arrogance and snobbishness, and disgust at his inability or unwillingness to save himself.

Serpent’s Tail are publishing Jernigan as part of their classics list, and it certainly deserves that description. Here’s hoping this new edition introduces him to the wider readership that he deserves.

And readers now have new work to guzzle up too. A Hand Reached Down To Guide Me is a terrific new collection of stories, just as dark as anything he’s written before, but with just the smallest hint here and there at possible salvation for his characters.

There are 12 stories here, and most of the tropes and themes of Gates’s earlier work are back in play again. His central characters are mostly highly educated academics or artists, often down on their luck, slumming it, or at the end of their careers. Almost everyone in these stories is having affairs or has in the past, there are broken marriages aplenty, and yet these people keep getting sucked back into making the same mistakes they have always made.

Amongst all the ultra-sharp dialogue, bad behaviour and self-loathing, there are glimpses of hope. While Jernigan feels like it was written in the white heat of despair, these stories have a more reflective quality, people looking back over their lives and also gazing gloomily into a future of old age, illness and death.

The opening novella, “Banishment”, sees a woman narrator hooking up with an elderly architect, both of them going into this frail and damaged relationship with eyes wide open, the sense of impending catastrophe is all pervasive. That sets the template for most of these frank, honest tales, with the exception of the final epony-mous story, in which an aging bluegrass musician with cancer comes to a friend’s house for his last few days. It is as unflinching as all Gates’s other writing, but for once he hints at a modicum of redemption for humanity in all our messy awfulness.

On the evidence of the new book, Gates remains a formidable and important writer for our times. And Jernigan retains its crazed power as a novel. Read them both.

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