David Gates established himself as a first-rate novelist with the publication of Jernigan (1991). A highly entertaining but bleak first-person narrative, Jernigan depicts an unrepentant alcoholic who makes all the wrong choices and drifts from the periphery of respectable middle-class life. Both aware and unaware of the devastating consequences of his actions, he poisons his relations with his wife until she suicidally crashes her car, and he shoots himself in the hand just to see what it is like. After he loses his job, his life unravels with a mixture of bravado and irony that is exhilaratingly foolhardy, if only because he defines himself by his lack of remorse.
After producing this initial tour de force, Gates wrote another well-received and modestly successful novel, Preston Falls (1998), which chronicled a man’s rejection of his family and career in New York until he disappears altogether. Ultimately about the mystery of motivation,Preston Falls alarms the reader because Doug and Jean Willis are both highly intelligent, culturally savvy people who are, however, unable to rise above the escalating crises of their daily lives. Doug wants to escape his conformist job for a youthful, redneck, swaggering lifestyle, but all he attains is a fearful retreat to a small hotel not far from his wife’s home. Throughout both novels, Gates shows us that only a few decisions separate people from throwing away their lives. The novel format suits Gates’s abilities because its relentlessness is, in part, the point of the narrative and the dramatic equivalent of the free fall into the abyss.
In his collection of short stories, The Wonders of the Invisible World, Gates adheres to many of the same themes and situations as in his novels, but he is also looking to expand on his repertoire. All of the characters live within driving distance of New York City, but in this collection Gates includes some retired characters, more female narrators, and several gay men in the mix. Whereas his novels relied on cumulative impact, these short stories sometimes have to compress complex issues, such as race relations and AIDS, into a small space, with mixed results. Petty demons possess most of the characters. Blessed with good liberal arts educations and often top-notch jobs, they are still subject to perversely willful behavior. Gates foreshadows this theme in his epigraph from Mark 5:8-9, wherein the “unclean spirit” or devil speaks: “My name is Legion: for we are many.” The title of the collection refers to a Cotton Mather book about devils in America. Gates need not refer to any specific demon in his stories; his character’s actions speak for themselves.
Much of the time, characters are often critically self-aware of how others may view them. Gates shows how their intellects turn on themselves in a kind of mental twist that often ironically anticipates some nastiness in others that may be justified or just imagined. In the title story of the collection, the unnamed assistant dean of a university narrates his tale, fully anticipating any possible critical take on what he has to say. If he conjures an image of a subway sound like a phoebe’s call, he is quick to point out the “cheap irony” of “juxtaposing urban and pastoral” themes. When his story begins to revolve around his twin anxieties over the possible pregnancy of his married girlfriend and his lost clarinet, he quickly deconstructs his hidden agenda in italics: “Wants to abandon his responsibilities as a man.” When his girlfriend mentions Cotton Mather’s The Wonders of the Invisible World (1693), however, he does not see the connection between the demons of the underworld and his relentlessly calculating self-consciousness, but he does struggle for a cold enough ending that ultimately emphasizes his indifference to the unborn child. His lost clarinet ultimately matters more than the loss of his mistress. In this same way, his tastes hold predominance over his relations with other people. Therefore, a homeless woman becomes “another disagreeable feature of the mise-en-scène.”
Gates once tried and failed to write a dissertation on Samuel Beckett, and sometimes he shares Beckett’s gallows humor in the face of negation. His characters seem more comfortable hating each other than in experiencing pleasure. “The Crazy Thought” chronicles Faye’s descent into...
(The entire section is 1808 words.)