- BuyA Hand Reached Down to Guide Me by David Gates
Serpent’s Tail, 314 pp, £12.99, August 2015, ISBN 978 1 78125 491 2
- BuyJernigan by David Gates
Serpent’s Tail, 339 pp, £8.99, August 2015, ISBN 978 1 78125 490 5
‘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.
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