“Some inner life, boy. That’s about what it had come down to” – Jernigan & A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me by David Gates

dgx2Stuart Evers introduces this new edition of David Gates’ Jernigan by recalling how he happened across Gates’ work while working in a bookshop. I worked at a different bookshop (though at the same time, around 2000) and remember reading a David Gates novel then. It was the type of novel that publishers’ reps claimed would sell thousands through ‘word of mouth’ (that old-fashioned form of Twitter, which really meant that no-one was going to market it beyond handing proof copies to poorly paid people with English degrees). Stuart Evers mentions that “the blurb copy suggested a kinship with Richard Yates, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford”, and that kinship is in Gates’ work with its quiet voice describing the mundane tragedies of ordinary lives but there is, also, something entirely of Gates’ own, an intensity and delight in being provocatively idiosyncratic.

Jernigan opens with a drive through the snow, “I’d driven past the edge of the storm – and I just kept going’. It echoes a Bruce Springsteen song, “Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing/I took a wrong turn and I just kept going” and like Springsteen Jernigan depicts a New Jersey where everyone has a hungry heart.

Jernigan is an alcoholic father, not so much mourning his dead wife as wondering about his own guilt in her death, unsure how to bring up his teenage son, energetically cynical and easily defined by his own father: “underneath all those layers of bullshit, what you’ve basically got is a bunch of self-pity.” Yet, underneath Jernigan’s self-pity is his humour, a bitter wit that is his frustrated attempt to communicate, often as angry as the humour of Richard Pryor.

As Jernigan says: “Some inner life, boy. That’s about what it had come down to” but while Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe or John Updike’s Rabbit are given a series of novels to depict their American lives, Jernigan gets one novel to relate this last act of his life. Told through Jernigan’s own voice, sadly reflective, retaining enough memory of his college education to draw on a wide range of allusion (Wallace Stevens alongside ‘Star Trek’) and ruefully self-aware, Jernigan’s description of his own destruction makes a wonderfully comic novel that, perhaps, shares as much with the novels of Richard Russo as those of Richard Yates. The comedy, though, is bleak and divisive for Jernigan is all too aware that he is culturally isolated, surrounded by the inane, in a dumbed-down, numbed world. Throughout the novel Jernigan mumbles “Little joke” when his puns, allusions and irony go unrecognised, and its repetition becomes as resigned as Kurt Vonnegut’s “And so it goes” in Slaughterhouse 5.

Alongside this new edition of Jernigan comes A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me, a collection of short stories and a novella, which continue the themes and situation of Jernigan, if an older and slightly more successful Jernigan. These stories depict unhappy, educated, men and, sometimes, their equally unhappy children but the wit is more forgiving here, lightened by the possibility that these characters might get a second chance. Gates’  characters are often men who have ruined their first marriages with women too young for them, and after they mess up their affair as well they find a lasting relationship with “the once-scandalous second wife”.

In these stories the characters learn to make the best of who they are, and the most of their second chance, by finally understanding the mistakes of their past. In the novella included in the collection, ‘Banishment’, the younger second wife of a retired architect comes to understand the secret of making a marriage work:

“The bad version is that we spent years hiding from each other in that beautiful house. A happier way to look at it is that this is what marriage is – mutual accommodation, tolerance and forgiveness.”

The humour of Gates’ short stories plays with literary allusion (though in the stories, unlike Jernigan, other characters get the jokes), and straight-forward punchlines, especially in ‘Desecrators’:

“When he finally got Fran to marry him, he quit the PhD program and stopped playing music, like some Jane Austen lady who’d hooked a husband and no longer needed her accomplishments.”

These older versions of Jernigan are understood by their sympathetic second wives, “now that I could pick up his allusions, most of them, and decode his ironies, he seemed to be a simple man.” The similarities, the continuity, between Jernigan and these later short stories may mine a single vein but in doing so they put Gates alongside those writers he resembles: Raymond Carver, Richard Yates and, rarely mentioned in such company, Richard Russo. The short stories of A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me are well-crafted and entertaining, but read consecutively they get a little claustrophobic, the same character (slightly adapted) in the same predicament. Indeed, the similarities between the stories make elements of them puzzling: why, I wondered, was there a reference to mowing the lawn in almost every story (and it’s also mentioned several times in Jernigan)? None of this undermines the appeal of Gates’ writing, but suggests that he will struggle to find the sizeable readership of John Williams’ Stoner.

Any Cop?: Jernigan is a classic, with the arresting narrative voice of everyone’s favourite American fiction (from Mark Twain to John Updike and Richard Yates), Serpent’s Tail ought to be thanked for making it available again. And David Gates’ short stories are perfect for anyone who likes Jernigan and wonders how he might have turned out twenty years later.

James Doyle


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