Post Road Magazine #25

PRESTON FALLS by David Gates

Jonathan Dixon
In the fall of 1999, I enrolled in the Hunter College fiction MFA program. This was its inaugural semester and there were ten or eleven of us reading each other's work. I had my own tastes, my own obsessions and pursuits. So even though I was polite when some of the others would turn in stories about vaguely dysfunctional suburban couples having vaguely perceived epiphanies as the ice melted in their cocktails, I was resolute in my view that this stuff was bunk.

I believed from crown to toes that this sort of thing was the single most boring exploration a writer could make. It was always difficult for me to understand why an author would grind their bones and brain into rubble and deplete their precious bodily fluids to limn concerns better suited to the care of a therapist than the investigations of a forensic psychologist. Midlife crises. . .shaky marriages. . .workplace ennui. . .the alienation of the shlubby man-child—I never thought these were incredibly weighty matters. When Cormac McCarthy told an interviewer that he couldn't traffic in any writing not taking up matters of life and death, I understood the sentiment. I needed an immensity to hang in the balance when I read a book, stuff that had sinew and rich blood, heft and force.

By my final semester, Hunter had brought some ringers in to act as thesis advisors and I was assigned to work with one of them: David Gates. I knew Gates wrote for Newsweek and had published two novels that had been received pretty well by his critic peers. A few quick Google inquiries told me that his fiction trammeled around suspect territory: middle-aged suburban men, grappling with mortality and dissatisfactions. But I wanted to get a sense of the writer my advisor was, so I availed myself of the Strand bookstore in order to get a copy of Gates' Pulitzer-nominated Jernigan. It was out of stock, so I settled for Preston Falls, his other novel, instead. The jacket text described the book as the ballad of Doug and Jean Willis: "struggling against a riptide of the daily commute, the mortgages, the latchkey child-rearing, and the country house." I couldn't imagine a worse endorsement and very much bedgrudged the $4.95 I ponied up. But on the subway ride back home, the scales began to fall from my eyes.

Sure, the jacket copy sketches the bare bones. And the first few pages—a scene of Willis, Jean, two petulant kids, and Rathbone the dog embarking on a trip from Westchester to their country house in upstate Preston Falls—seem to fulfill its promise. Willis—big-mouthed and thick in the middle, over-educated, a collector of guitars, a copywriter for a juice company—invites a measure of casual contempt simply by being who he is, with his narcissism and smart-assed quips, entitlements, and derisions. You kind of hate the kids. There's a palpable tension between the spouses.

But with a terse, concise rendering of Willis' inner logics, Gates brings you into an uneasy empathy with him; Willis is trying not to be an asshole to Jean and the kids—he really is trying—and if you've ever had an unbelievably dull job that required little of your talents but sapped everything else, you understand him more than just a bit.

Then the transmission gets staticky. The pitch rises and things start to shudder. As Willis begins the story getting nauseously drunk and lashes out at the family through his subsequent hangover, you begin seeing strobes of a deep, smoldering rage. You realize Willis is more than slightly unhinged. A glimpse comes early on when he drops in at his neighbors', the very wealthy and comfortable Bjorks, to pick his kids up. As Willis tries to corral his misbehaving kids into the car, we get the following:

"We seem to be having one of those days," Willis says to the Bjorks. "Well, I guess we all have them." Arthur doesn't even deign to put down the Travel section.

"Except for you, right?" says Willis. "You fat fuck."

That gets the son of a bitch focused: down goes the paper, covering his sausage thighs like a shirt, as Katherine's mouth opens to an O (Billie Burke couldn't have done it better).

"I think you better go," Arthur says, though he doesn't stand up.

"Hey, don't worry about it." Crazy motherfucker named Willis. The Bjorks just look at each other. Willis can imagine: Arthur's thinking his wife expects him to deck this guy, and she's thinking if her old man gets in a fistfight he'll finally have that heart attack. Out on the pond, the Bjork kids have the rubber boat spinning as if in a whirlpool, slashing away with the paddles, whooping and shrieking. Willis turns to follow his children up the path, and only now does his chest start pounding. Christ, he's the one who's going to have the fucking heart attack. He hauls off and kicks over the milk can the Bjorks have put at the head of the path to amp up the country charm, then looks back toward the pond. Resolutely, the Bjorks face the water.

And it gets weirder, heavier, from there. Plotwise, there's an arrest, a crooked criminal lawyer, and some very low-level drug dealing. Willis goes MIA. His marriage gets blown to hell. But that's the least of it. Through it all, Gates never takes the easy paths the plot might suggest; there's virtually no physical violence, no killing spree, no drug kingpin action tropes. Willis is a crazy motherfucker but the mayhem is muted, internal, and played out against everyday, quotidian backdrops. It's wilder and more disquieting as a result. The emotional brutality is way beyond anything that could ever emanate from a gun. Gates' trip into Willis' shattered mind and marriage is almost Conradian and doesn't even need the Congo River. It pulls itself right out of the suburban milieu and into the same territory as Cassavetes' A Woman under the Influence or Dylan's Blood on the Tracks. There's sinew and rich blood in spades. There's an immensity hanging in the balance. Damn right it's a matter of life and death.

Gates turned out to be a fun advisor. We met at his apartment and talked very little about writing. We listened to Charley Patton, the Stanley Brothers, and Albert Ayler; rhapsodized about Samuel Beckett and Denis Johnson; discussed the sorry state of music criticism. He had a store of pretty good scotch that he poured with a generous hand, and I usually left our meetings with an unsteady step. I don't think we ever really discussed my project, but the answers to a lot of my questions were close at hand on my writing desk, where I kept my copy of Preston Falls.

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