by David Gates
After the fall and fall of the eponymous Jernigan in David Gates' debut novel we have another anti-hero in Willis, or Doug Willis to give him his full name (although nobody else does). A copy-writer for a drinks firm in New York he takes a two month leave of absence in order to halt the approach of his mid-life crisis and get some space away from the pressures of his family. A farmhouse ('in need of some work' as the say) in the rural backwater of Preston Falls provides the perfect opportunity for some manual labour and the peace and quiet required to immerse himself in Dickens and meditative nights under the stars.
But this is a novel by David Gates so I have already learnt that things aren't going to go that smoothly. The family significantly set off for the long drive in seperate cars, Willis alone in his beaten up old truck ('his fuck-you to the Volvos in the commuter lot at Chesterton station') after his attempt at a male bonding ride with son Roger is prevented by his simple response, 'I don't want to'. It's Labour Day weekend, the traffic is terrible, and they finally arrive at one in the morning. The next day's attempt at a simple family barbecue with Willis' brother Champ and girlfiend Tina ends with Willis cooking under shelter as rain pours and thunder claps. This long weekend is still to get a whole lot longer. Gates' dialogue is superb, each characters voice brilliantly delineated and the subtle warfare of mid-life point scoring well realised. Constantly tense exchanges between him and his wife Jean lead her to take the kids away to the lake. Willis realises this isn't the way to leave things before his sabbatical so he heads down to join them. But a spiky word or two with the man on the gate eventually leads to Willis being arrested, in front of his family, and carted away to the cells.
The rest of Willis' break sees him getting deeper and deeper into the mire. Drink and drugs, guitars, disasterous attempts at home improvement, drug running, guns and more run-ins with the police will all follow as Willis' attempt to put himself back together comes apart at the seams. Gates skill is to make some of these outlandish sounding escapades seem mundane and almost inevitable. Willis' refusal to compromise his atagonistic nature is his undoing. He carries some of the tropes of a mid-life crisis; a collection of guitars and a wish to jam, a roving eye, but most importantly an adolescent nature which puts the grunts and sighs of his own son into the shade. If there's a problem it's that it's difficult to feel much sympathy for someone who behaves like a petulant solipsist. He lacks the humour or compassion that might make us get behind him. His childish complaint later of, 'How can this be happening to someone so well read?' speaks volumes. When the focus shifts to his wife and kids back home you might expect our sympathy to find a place to rest but she's not all that likeable either.
Gates has skillfully written about another man's decline but Willis lacks the pyrotechnics that made Jernigan such a compelling character.