What we think but don’t say, what we say but wish we hadn’t, and what we do but can’t explain and then go on to do again–these are the messy behavioral foundations of David Gates’s uncompromising fiction. From his striking first novel, Jernigan, to his brave new collection of stories, The Wonders of the Invisible World, Gates has positioned himself as a new realist at the opposite end of the literary spectrum from the motivational mythologists whose talk-show-themed novels of self-discovery dominate bestseller lists. Unlike the recovery hucksters who surround him, whose stories show characters going from tough to tender like hunks of marinated meat, Gates gives us people who change by staying the same, whose only growth is to fill in more completely their mysteriously fixed identities. Gates promotes no remedies, sells no cures. His characters are the walking wounded, and their wounds, as often as not, are the result of futile or faddish stabs at self-improvement.
For a Gates character, life’s defining challenge is to impersonate a human being. To convince friends and family that you have a conscience (since none of us can be sure we really do). In “The Bad Thing,” his collection’s opening story, a pregnant woman strives to cover up a night of drinking by sneaking liquor into a depleted bottle. What’s at stake is her pose as a responsible mother, itself a defense against her husband’s doubts about her sexual loyalty. The husband is one of Gates’s classic nincompoops, a grandiose illustrator of children’s books whose self-importance outpaces his accomplishment. Like so many of Gates’s couples, the two are at that moving-to-the-country age when comfort edges out ambition and eating well replaces eroticism. When the woman’s elaborate, frantic effort to hide her self-indulgence falls apart, the husband goes for her psychological throat. No one storms off, but the battlefield is changed. By brandishing the sword that he’s kept sheathed, the husband has lost his moral advantage, weakening himself for the next round.
In his clarity about human savagery and the vigilant cunning required to mask it, Gates has an air of the Restoration farceur. The difference is that the comedy is inward, enacted behind the curtain of the face. Instead of disguises and slamming doors, he gives us insincere thoughts and swinging moods. The title story is the diary of a cad whose outward efforts to juggle his affairs and handle their unfortunate human offspring veil a consuming preoccupation with music trivia. His thoughts and his actions barely know each other, and the bitter joke of the story is just how smoothly a person can carry on a tricky love life while devoting the lion’s share of consciousness to questions of jazz composition, say, or the search for a good drummer for his combo. This isn’t the same as sleepwalking through life, though. This cad, like his counterparts in other stories, is fully, even excessively, alert. The problem is that he uses this alertness to program outward appearances so thoroughly that no one will ever get past them to his soul, which isn’t worth exploring anyhow.
Intelligence, education, and self-analysis are not redemptive forces in these stories. In fact, they tend to lead people astray, adding baffling new nooks and crannies to their personal labyrinths. In “The Intruder,” Finn and James are a gay couple living the rural lush life somewhere in New England. Finn is a college professor out of Albee, lacerating, self-hating, and sexually blocked, who fears that his hunky young lover is tiring of him. It’s a familiar setup, distinguished by Gates’s unequaled flair for the herky-jerky interior monologue that crosses back and forth and overlaps itself, leaving the thinker precisely where he began, only more exhausted. At one point, Finn, a documentary filmmaker, views a porn movie by way of researching a film on the gay-pornography underground. “Had he needed to turn the thing off because it was too powerful? Or was it just ugly and frightening, period, without any significance … ? Well, good: Simply to ask such questions was to work. Unless it was another way of not working.” The story ends with a neat comeuppance and turnabout that’s a bit too O. Henry for the collection and resolves Finn’s quandary in one stroke. The more he looks inward, the less he sees, he learns.
Not all of Gates’s characters are bad, but the good ones–almost as a rule–don’t realize that they’re good. In “Vigil,” an older fellow named Len is called upon to keep domestic order after his daughter is injured in a car accident that may or may not have followed a liaison with a man not her husband. Len is by far the thickest, intellectually, of anyone in the book. He seldom watches TV, putters in his shop, and minds his own business. An average retiree. Still, it’s this slowness and imperturbability that render him invaluable in a crisis. He’s too dense to crack, unlike his brittle family, and without even knowing he’s done so until it’s over, he manages to guide the others to safety. And though he reproaches himself after the crisis for savoring the intimacy it fostered and not wanting it to end, he’s an authentic hero. Not smart, just sound. He has somehow avoided the spiral of self-consciousness that sucks so many of Gates’s characters into inescapable black holes.
If Gates has a general theory of human behavior, it’s theological, not psychological. He seems to believe in possession by evil spirits (and by good ones, too), not merely as an amusing postulate but as a stubborn, self-evident fact. How else to explain why we do what we don’t want to, no matter how hip we are to our own dark sides, and often can’t do what we know we must? In “Saturn,” he rides this pessimistic notion to the end of the line, following a reluctant marijuana user through rationalizations and resolutions into a perfect, miniature hell. And though she’s had every chance to simply shuck them, she ends up locking the latch of her own handcuffs. Nothing to base a therapy on here, let alone an upbeat book-group topic. Gates wipes the rosy tint off readers’ glasses, promising only to help them see.
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