by David Gates
American literature is populated by plenty of male narrators, charting the pressure placed on American values and ideals by the simple course of living a life. John Updike's Rabbit novels, Philip Roth's Zuckerman books and Richard Ford's recently completed trilogy featuring Frank Bascombe stand as shining examples of total character; men who feel as real, more real perhaps, than people we may actually know. David Gates first novel published in 1991 doesn't add another name to that list so much as start a new one; the American anti-hero, not an Everyman but rather the kind of man you're damn glad you aren't (and if you are, well, good luck).
Peter Jernigan is a drunk. The novel opens with him making his way to a friend's empty trailer in the dead of winter. He will be rescued by the state police after falling into a drunken stupor and lose his thumb and forefinger in the process but as he tells us '...the essential man was, and is, still intact. Which is the big thing, right, the essential man? Jernigan'.
Jernigan is a widower. A year ago his wife, an alcoholic herself, made a scene at a party, removed her bathing suit, got into the car and backed out of the drive into the path of an oncoming truck. Since then he has limped along in a state of limbo and it is his teenage son Danny who attempts to kick start him again socially when he invites him to join a party at his girlfriend's house. There, after a few too many glasses of moonshine, he ends up staying the night with her mother, and slowly finds himself there again and again until, almost without meaning to, he moves in to this ready-built nuclear family.
But this is a far from conventional setup, the moonshine is a hint towards the alternative outlook that Martha has towards life. Down in her basement she breeds rabbits for meat and her friend is the man behind a magazine , Suburban Survivalist, which is filled with articles showing how to enjoy the benfits of suburbia without any of the soul crushing conformity. Martha and her daughter have their own problems too but Jernigan's inability to deal with even the basics of his own life mean he's very far from the stable male influence Martha was hoping him to be.
Which all makes it sound rather serious and whilst it does have its moments this is primarily a dark comedy with the extraordinary Jernigan at the centre. A man with education and intelligence who finds it increasingly difficult to make those witty leaps into punning wordplay as the book progresses his frequent interruptions into the narrative are hilarious. 'Now what kind of thing was that to say.' he interjects after hurling yet another hurtful phrase. His contempt for those around him, especially when fuelled by alcohol, causes him to keep lashing out at those who want to help. Later, in a desperate attempt to feel something, he takes a gun and shoots himself in the hand. 'That's Jernigan all over: first you swallow a bunch of drugstore anodynes and then you want to feel something and then you bitch and moan because it hurts'. As the book progresses Gates shows the crumbling state of our hero as his sentences start to break down, thoughts remain unfinished, sentences sputter to an end, you can almost hear the brain cells dying with each gulp of alcohol.
Full bloodied and noisy, Jernigan's voice is compelling, a little like being held hostage by a talkative drunk in a bar. As much as you might wish that things had gone differently for him you can't help being gripped as he recounts the car crash that is his life.