David Gates writing shines in those moments of self-conscious vulnerability, where the veil is drawn and the confrontation with oneself and one’s reality is glaring back, undeniable.
A Hand Reached Down to Guide MePublisher: Knopf
Length: 336 pages
Author: David Gates
Publication date: 2015-05
"There is something at work in my soul, which I do not understand."
-- Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
This is the epigraph to David Gates’ short fiction collection, A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me, and an apt summary of the characters that populate his stories. Deemed a “true heir to Raymond Carver and John Cheever” by New York magazine, Gates certainly shows inspiration from the realist masters in his depictions of middle class ennui and unrest.
Through stories of broken marriages and relationships, failed careers and dead ends, he diligently depicts individuals succumbing to the pull of their own latent desires, if for no other reason then it’s the only drive they seem to have left. And while Gates’ characters are often enlightening and astute in their ultimate realizations and afterthoughts, garnering the sympathy or interest to follow them there can sometimes be a chore.
The collection’s longest piece, the opening novella entitled "Banishment", is an extended exploration of marital fatigue. An unnamed, aging woman reflects on the decline of her two marriages, particularly the second at a young age to a much older man after leaving her first husband. The story illustrates a woman acting upon nothing much else but curiosity and impulse, without stopping to consider the origin of such feelings. As the two spend the next few years together, it seems no clearer to her or the reader what keeps the two together. There doesn’t seem to be much of anything approaching love in the relationship (or among most of Gates’ couples) or at least none recognizably described.
“I might simply have wanted to feel my power over a man,” she says in first meeting him, and later she describes liking “how greedy he was for me.” In spending time with the man, away from her husband, she says, “nothing untoward, beyond the lies I’d had to tell my husband.” With levels of denial snuggly in Cheever’s ballpark, the story paints an intriguing portrait of two individuals neglecting the depths of their motivations and the vague ties of their bond, seeing how far their blinders will see them through and for long long it will satisfy them both. “Where grown-up, dirty needs got met and afterwards you smelled of mortality,” she says, knowing said “dirty needs” are as much about petty manipulation and control as they are about sex.
Though the themes and tropes "Banishment" sets up are thoughtfully explored, they unfortunately become repeated ad nauseam throughout the rest of the book, making some of the stories feel like rehashed versions of the same ingredients until you could start checking them off. Infidelity? Check. Older man with younger woman? Check. Pretentious, facetious narrator? Check. It makes many of the characters, particularly the protagonists, blend together, and difficult to discern from one another or remember on their own terms.
The other problematic aspect of these repeat protagonists is the extent of their evasiveness. With so many adulterers in the stories, it becomes difficult to be invested in characters who take such behavior for granted or pass it off, and who don’t reveal their justifications or feelings on the matter. Gates peppers many stories with educated, pompous protagonists who rattle off cultural trivia and references to classical music and literature, showing carefree pretentiousness over sincerity. While likable or heroic characters are certainly not a necessity, even unlikeable characters require the teensiest entry way into their souls to relate to their faults. From one story to another in Gates’ collection, some souls are more visible than others.
Where Gates does consistently shine is in the arrival of those moments of self-conscious vulnerability, where the veil is drawn and the confrontation with oneself and one’s reality is glaring back, undeniable. It’s in these moments where Gates’ stories seem to speak most clearly and resonantly: a young man facing jail time and contemplating driving off into the night; a listless young woman floating in her suburban community’s local lake, waiting to receive new direction in life; and, in the collection’s heartbreaking title story, a man watching an old friend wither away from cancer.
It’s in these moments that the narration becomes scenery, and the characters stand out in relief. It’s this continuous confrontation and conflict with their own unrealized souls that plagues Gates’ characters, as well as the wildness and desperation to realize themselves. They struggle to discern between what feels good for them and what is good for them, pondering the thin, blurred line between instinct and impulse, and riding it out in purgatory until they discover the difference.
In the conclusion of the story, “Locals”, the narrator says, "What everybody needs to understand, you get to a point where you can’t do anything about who you are anymore…and then the best you can hope for is not to do anybody damage, and good luck with that."
What seems to be the ultimate tragedy of many of Gates' characters is this type of comfortable deniability. The terror is not that they don’t understand their souls, but that they understand them better than they’re willing, or brave enough, to admit. As in Frankenstein, this is ultimately what makes monsters.