‘As I tell my students, if you’re not at a creative impasse, you’re not paying attention,’ the stalled composer who narrates one of the stories in A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me says. In another story, a magazine journalist mentions that he’s ‘taken to smoking weed’ while setting down the words we’re reading – ‘can you tell?’ In another, a small-time columnist with ‘a computer infested with miscarried books’ makes the mistake of looking her work over while stoned: ‘I was too high to follow from the beginning of a sentence to the end, but the falseness and glibness revealed itself so plainly that I couldn’t bring myself to write the next day. Maybe by this time you know the tone I’m talking about?’ In yet another, an ageing actor researching his part in a semi-amateur production of Twelfth Night reads in ‘good old Granville-Barker’: ‘Feste, I feel, is not a young man … There runs through all he says and does that vein of irony by which we may so often mark one of life’s self-acknowledged failures … a man of parts without character and with more wit than sense.’ The actor offers no comment, but by now he doesn’t need to.
David Gates, the creator of these connoisseurs of disappointment and self-sabotage, published his first novel, Jernigan, in 1991. Joseph Heller called it a ‘sizzler’ and Michiko Kakutani announced in the New York Times that Gates had ‘established himself as a novelist of the very first order’. The Times profiled him too: ‘“Beckett is my main man,” Mr Gates says in his office at Newsweek magazine, where he writes about music and books … He is, he says, “a reluctant writer”, though he doesn’t really know why.’ A second novel, Preston Falls, appeared in 1998 to respectful rather than awestruck reviews; a year later a story collection, The Wonders of the Invisible World, went down pretty well. This time he was on leave from Newsweek when the interviewer called. ‘I’m supposed to be writing,’ he said. ‘I haven’t actually written for a few weeks.’ It was, he explained, ‘a weird time in my life now, not having anything on the stove. Always I had a novel in the background and maybe some stories in the foreground and I could go back and forth, but now I’ve got nothing at all … Yeah. So I’ve got the notebooks. Got the pens. All I need is the stories.’
A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me is the first book he’s produced since then, and thanks to the 16-year interval it would be easy to depict its studies of grimly witty non-deliverers as a chastened second coming. But a disabling sense of having a great future behind you has been a theme in Gates’s writing since the start of his career, a career that must have felt, from time to time, unlikely to get started at all. He was 44 when Jernigan came out and had last been in proximity to book-world fame in the 1970s, when his then wife, Ann Beattie, was routinely described as the voice of their generation on the strength of the stories she was publishing in the New Yorker. (It was Gates who suggested calling her first novel, published in 1976, Chilly Scenes of Winter, a title borrowed – like that of his new book – from a bluegrass song.) They met as graduate students at the University of Connecticut during his second stab at a credentialled life: he’d dropped out of Bard College a few years earlier and spent time as, in his words, ‘a lost soul’. A PhD on Beckett was on the cards in Connecticut, but he dropped out again and fell apart in rented houses until he washed up at Newsweek in 1978; the marriage ended two years later. Over the decades that followed, he became a minor fixture on the magazine journalism and writing school circuits and earned a reputation as a guitar and mandolin player in amateur country bands. His characters often move in similar circles: he writes a good pissed-up media shindig and unbearable faculty dinner party, and Preston Falls contains some informed satire on middle-aged jam night enthusiasts.
Gates’s fiction tends to focus on unhappy, overeducated, boozy post-1960s couples simmering in rural or suburban East Coast settings, having thrown over their big city lives for roomier accommodation or better schools. The wife might have complicated feelings about being pregnant or about an ex-boyfriend or about an affair she had back in the city. On the whole, though, her inner problems will be dwarfed by the outer ones generated by the bottomlessly self-involved man she’s married to. Gates’s husbands seem to go to pieces with extra force out of disgust for the conventionality of their excuses: difficult childhoods, mediocre careers, a weakness for booze and drugs, an interest in other women. In age and sensibility, they’re caught in the crossfire of the intergenerational squabble that caused David Foster Wallace, speaking for ‘the children of all the impassioned infidelities and divorces Updike wrote about so beautifully’, to characterise the typical Updikean baby boomer as ‘an asshole’. Gates’s men are often assholes, no question, but in place of a Rabbit-like serenity about their desires they’re equipped with Wallace-style habits of compulsive self-reproach and self-consciousness. Afflicted with refined tastes in books and pop stuff, they’re unable to work out if they’re men of the people or merely highbrows indulging in a kind of class minstrelsy by filling their heads with ‘faux-primitive shit’. So they settle for feeling both abject and superior, advertising the depth of their suffering, to those with eyes to see, by using an impenetrably ironic schtick to deflect all claims on their inner lives.
Seen from the outside, especially by wives or girlfriends who’ve learned to decode their little ways (‘He gave his snorting laugh, the one that means I hate myself’), these characters sometimes function as walk-on grotesques, memorable chiefly for their perverse affectations of unaffectedness. In one of Gates’s stories from the 1990s, a couple move to the wilds of Vermont, where the husband expresses his discontent by making an elaborate show of going native: buying a pickup truck and wearing a trucker cap, listening to Merle Haggard, talking about buying a gun, and even starting, local-fashion, to pronounce the ‘i’ in ‘wife’ like the ‘uy’ in ‘Huysmans’. ‘To have adopted such an aesthetic so convincingly was a real accomplishment,’ his wife has to admit, ‘for someone who knew perfectly well who Huysmans was.’ Watching baseball because you like the idea of yourself ‘preferring baseball to, say, an opera’ is another standard move, and when Gates wants to create a more likeable male ironist – like Billy in ‘Star Baby’, the most effective story in The Wonders of the Invisible World, who’s seen giving ‘his best imitation of a guileless smile’ – he makes the character gay, perhaps to take the edge of eccentric wilfulness off his advanced sense of camp.
Willis (as everyone calls him) in Preston Falls, the most lifelike of Gates’s nightmare husbands, is more the Merle Haggard type. A man with literary ambitions of some kind in his past, now a mid-ranking copywriter at a soft drinks concern, he succeeds in making his long-term plans for his marriage nearly as opaque to his wife and children as they apparently are to him by driving around in a pickup truck blasting Straight Outta Compton and having sneaky bumps of coke. After a drunken argument at their holiday home, a dilapidated farmhouse in upstate New York which he chose part-consciously for its family-repelling qualities, his wife, Jean, observes him ‘sitting out on the stepstone with his back to her. Feeling lonely and misunderstood. Or sensing his own insignificance in the vastness of the universe. Or planning how he’s going to dump her. Or wondering whether to buy a motorcycle or another guitar. Really, at this point, how would anybody know?’ The novel patiently dramatises his midlife crisis, from both characters’ points of view, with lots of concrete detail, snappy dialogue and some compelling set-pieces. But Willis’s baroque self-absorption isn’t enough to sustain more than three hundred closely printed pages of dutiful third-person narrative.
Peter Jernigan is better company on the page, largely because in the novel named after him he tells his own story. He’s writing, he indicates early on, in an institution of some kind – it turns out to be a drying-out facility – and has no memory of being rushed to hospital from the snowbound trailer in New Hampshire in which he’d holed up. Parts of this set-up (the collapse, the blanked-out rescue, the figure writing from a place outside the life he’s given up on) seem to be borrowed from Beckett’s novel Molloy, as do the increasingly crazed demands that Jernigan remembers making of his son. So it’s no surprise that, back in suburban New Jersey, the next-door neighbours whose names he’d never bothered to learn, remarking only that ‘they sure do have one ugly fucking house’, turn out to be ‘the Molloys’. Jernigan, unusually for him, passes up the opportunity for a bookish one-liner. ‘Jaysus,’ he mutters instead, ‘there goes the neighbourhood.’
Jernigan is set in a specific time and place, a leafy commuter town in 1987, and the characters inhabit a social reality that isn’t much more grotesque and stylised than that laid out by, say, Ann Beattie: a middle-class world in which the excitements and dislocations of the 1960s are beginning to settle down in the memories of the middle-aged. Places and things in Jernigan’s story have an un-Beckett-like solidity, despite his non-linear approach to the timeline and wooziness about facts. What Gates takes from Beckett appears to be the idea of a monologue haunted by accusing inner voices, and a comic attention to both register and the metaphors embedded in everyday figures of speech. Jernigan observes that his charm isn’t cutting much ice with a woman ‘who wasn’t really pretty enough for me to want to cut ice with anyway’. At one point he considers ‘praying to be subsumed, if they were still subsuming people these days’.
Our hero, ‘taker of 23 acid trips (I had kept count) and sworn enemy of convention’, is working, when his story begins, as a commercial property agent in Manhattan, catching the train home each night to his teenage son, Danny. A year earlier, Danny’s mother, Judith, got drunk at their Fourth of July barbecue, showered curses on Jernigan, ran naked to her car and backed out blind into a fast-moving van, dying instantly. This year Danny – a self-contained kid with whom Jernigan hasn’t dared to discuss Judith’s death for fear of what he might say – conveys an invitation to a party at his girlfriend Clarissa’s house. Martha, Clarissa’s mother, whom Jernigan hasn’t met before, is friendly, separated from her husband and, it slowly dawns on him, pretty wasted. ‘Martha Peretsky’s bedroom,’ the next chapter begins, ‘was unrecognisable by morning light. It was full of all this detail, whereas the night before it had been, I don’t know, whatever.’ Without really talking it through with Danny, who’s effectively living there already, Jernigan finds himself moving in and accommodating himself to Martha’s hippie-survivalist lifestyle. Soon she introduces him to ‘Bunny Hell’, a basement filled with caged rabbits which she shoots with a .22 pistol when meat supplies are running low.
All this is told in a way that’s often very funny, thanks partly to Gates’s comic timing and partly to Jernigan’s adjustable perspective. His running commentary includes his sardonic responses at the time, his medium-term self-justifications and his self-loathing retrospective wonderment. And the reader isn’t made to wait too long before the next bad move, and then the next. Jernigan’s employers decide to let him go. He responds by ‘blithely putting the moves’ on his now ex-boss’s assistant. (‘To the extent it was moves. To the extent it was blithe.’) Martha encourages him to take some time ‘outside the money economy’, so he hits the gin hard, takes to sitting up watching Star Trek or reading P.G. Wodehouse until he passes out, and responds to even the gentlest inquiries with blandly snide stonewalling. One evening he visits his old house and finds Danny’s friend Dustin there. ‘Way overacting the concerned parent’ as cover for retrieving a bottle stashed behind the Quaker Oats, he fails to notice that Dustin is preparing to shoot himself. Back at Martha’s he finds Clarissa freaking out on LSD. She hums ‘a mad little tune … like Schoenberg to the beat of “Do You Know the Muffin Man?”’ as he drunk-drives her back from the doctor’s in the middle of the night.
Life fails to get any calmer in the Jernigan-Peretsky household after that, and as the hero slides with increasing speed towards pissing his pants in a frozen field in New Hampshire, having irreversibly poisoned his relations with everyone who ought to matter to him, an additional area of narrative interest opens up around what explanation of his troubles he’ll finally settle for. There are many to choose from, starting with his mother, who ran off when he was small, leaving him in the care of his father, a once famous abstract painter who seems to have been another drinker and toxic ironist. His father suspected him of going into property to shame his bohemian dad: Jernigan was once going to be a literature professor, still knows his Georgics from his Eclogues, and berates himself with more than usual vehemence for constantly shutting Danny out by saying things like ‘Shantih shantih … ’S’up?’ Then there’s his late wife, who shared his taste for hollow jokes. ‘What she liked was that the hilarity could go out of these things and leave the shape behind. So she and I understood each other. In that respect.’ Maybe a whole climate of feeling is to blame or maybe it’s those 23 acid trips. ‘The twists and turns of Jernigan: what could be more interesting?’
Jernigan has acquired a cultish readership during the years it’s been out of print, and it’s being republished now with the open aim of reaching the sizeable audience that resurrected John Williams’s Stoner and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road. All three books share an interest in sad marriages and a certain amount of diffuse self-pity, but strenuous Flaubertian realism as practised on a mid-20th-century American campus, provided in spades by Williams and Yates, isn’t really on this novel’s agenda. Though cunningly managed in lots of ways, its long-term plotting brings in a note of melodrama, partly, I’d guess, as a makeshift solution to the basic implausibility of Martha encouraging a mean drunk to outstay his welcome. It’s also – this isn’t a criticism – too snarly and raw to go over well, as Stoner did, with Radio 4’s core audience. That doesn’t mean it isn’t brilliantly observed, especially when it comes to the micro-embarrassments of Jernigan’s ordinary social interactions. Martha, when he first meets her, declares that they’re both ‘nice people’:
‘What I mean is … I think the nice people in this world should stick together. Because bro-ther.’
‘To the nice people,’ I said, raising my can from collarbone level to chin level. But not actually drinking. To have taken a belt right then would have been crude, wouldn’t it? Suggesting this world was so awful that we should all immediately get drunk. So I just raised the beer can and lowered it, as if crossing myself. Then, after a couple of seconds, I went ahead and took a belt, as if someone had changed the subject.
But we were still on the subject, apparently.
Jernigan is the kind of guy who, while working up to a suicide attempt, reflexively tries to construct a joke around a pun that occurs to him but can’t see ‘how to set the son of a bitch up’. He’s got voice to burn, voice out the wazoo, but Gates also turns each wisecrack to account, more or less, by encouraging the reader not to distinguish between a novelist’s ironic distance and the character’s condition, a condition that Jernigan ends up calling a ‘spiritual disease’.
Spirit talk is something that Gates’s people begin to find alarming as they move through middle age and beyond with their moral discomfort intact. ‘Staring in shit-faced reverence’ at the stars is alright, but feeling watched by the satanic forces mentioned in country songs, as Willis intermittently does in Preston Falls, shows an unsettling lack of sophistication. (Willis ‘stopped smoking dope years ago: officially because it made it harder to stay off cigarettes, actually because it made people around him seem evil’.) As they enter a world of loneliness, physical decline and increasingly less bangable interns, though, the characters in A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me are embarrassed to find that imagery from old-time religion comes to hand when they try to assess the damage done. ‘God dread, not that it rose to the level of dread’, troubles the narrator of ‘The Curse of the Davenports’, the curse being the religiosity that seized his dad and grandad when they reached the age he’s approaching now. ‘You must be thinking I’m not too tightly wrapped, unless you’re a Jesus case like my brother,’ the narrator of ‘Banishment’ says after indulging in a tearful prayer. Later, the brother sends her
a link to a passage that he said had been a comfort to him: 1 Corinthians 13, Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels and so on. I thought it would be another sales pitch for Jesus, but He didn’t even get a mention – just general wisdom, and a little bleak at that. Apparently if you didn’t have love you weren’t shit, that’s what I took away from it: you weren’t shit and you didn’t have shit and you didn’t know shit and you get the rest of the picture when you’re dead – the glass darkly thing. Like, where do I sign up?
‘No, my brother hasn’t swooped in and body-snatched me, if that’s where you thought this was going,’ she assures us. ‘But I do believe this much: sooner or later, and in my case I hope later, you’ll have to look at exactly who you were and everything you did, and it’s going to be a shitshow.’
There are signs, here and there, that it won’t be a shitshow for everyone. The title story ends in a cautiously upbeat way, and there’s a moment of reconciliation in ‘The Curse of the Davenports’, in which a low-rent university teacher treats us to the ‘picnic-lightning version’ (teaching assistant, ‘Gene Tierney overbite’) of his marriage’s collapse. But on the whole Gates seems happiest with sorrowing drunks, smart-talking New York media types and, for the sake of variety, staid yet non-Republican country folk. His characters are still oddly obsessed with the demerits of polyurethane finishes (possibly a guitar nerd thing) and he has kept up his endearing tic of giving everyone the same taste in bedtime reading (Austen, Dickens, Wodehouse, Harold Bloom). The main change is that the younger women have aged in tandem with the older men who have affairs with them, and become more likely to be used as the point-of-view character. Gates deals with any suspicions we might have that he’s given this matter some thought by giving one such younger woman a greying mentor at Newsweek, who used to ‘come to my apartment straight from his office and give me a good mentoring, with a scarf tied around my ankles’.
This character – she doesn’t tell us her name, pointing to the second wife in Rebecca as a precedent – is the star of ‘Banishment’, the novella-length opener and the best thing Gates has done since Jernigan. A Yale graduate from the same year as Naomi Wolf, she wishes to detail her time as a much younger second wife to a ‘once-almost-famous’ architect, whom she meets while working for a local paper in the Hudson Valley in the mid-1990s. (The Newsweek writer helped her get the job – ‘people knew his name back then’ – because by then he’d started mentoring another researcher.) The architect, unnamed as well, has no trouble detaching her from her first husband, a fellow journalist who, in the tradition of Gates’s couples, seems to have her number more than she wants to admit. He’s a figure of some charm, this architect, a benign version of the usual male protagonist: jokey without being pissy or self-withholding, less successful than he might have liked but OK with that, an amateur jazz musician rather than a country music fan. Plus he’s rich. So she ascends to a life of civilised pre-dinner drinks and regular trips up to town for dinner or the opera. Their house has a Richard Diebenkorn on the wall.
It’s made clear from the start that it won’t end well, and Gates doesn’t go to very great lengths to make the way she torpedoes the marriage a surprise. In the meantime, the narrator amuses herself by hinting at other ways in which it might go wrong, throwing in camped-up riffs on Bluebeard scenarios or picturing her husband ‘Viagrable’ at 90: ‘Not a creature you’d want to see tottering at you with a gleam in his rheumy eye, a steely shaft clattering against his frangible pelvic bone.’ The writing plays lines like that against more spoken-sounding cadences to great effect; the atmosphere is part fairy tale, part Sex and the City with funnier and cleverer characters, until real emotion begins to mess up the narrator’s composure. ‘I don’t know what all this is supposed to add up to,’ she writes. ‘It seems to be about damaged and selfish people … am I leaving out anything?’ One answer is in the title, which nods to a sentence she quotes: ‘What goes by the name of love is banishment, with now and then a postcard from the homeland.’ It’s from Beckett’s First Love, so in that respect, and in spite of his tarrying with 1 Corinthians 13, Gates hasn’t forgotten the faith he started out with.