Live From Rehab: On David Gates' Jernigan
David Gates' Jernigan is a fine read, though it wouldn't be a stretch to call it overwrought. An excellent writer, if this first novel is any indication, he manages to create a character whose voice is wholly convincing. Curiously, the insistence of that voice threatens to jeopardize the novel's consistency. Given that Jernigan, the narrator of this tale, is not a literary type, one wonders how such a bitter drunk could remain in a person-to-person job for ten years without crisis. By making Jernigan a salesman of real estate, I suspect the author squanders the opportunity to comment on a profession that turns a basic human right—the right to shelter, as outlined in the UN charter—into a privilege. His loathing for suburbia is hinted at, though with so little elaboration, it seems largely obscured by omission; certainly, my own prejudices fire my longing to read this delightfully embittered personality's take on the adage "Property is theft" or, thereabouts. This exclusion effectively dilutes the significance of his firing. When Jernigan loses a job that plays no role on events that take place at home—the central locale in the novel, thematically and "exegetically"—it matters little. One can hardly lose what one hasn't had.
Jernigan's wonderful erudition—his wit, his knowledge, his wordplay, vocabulary and punning—functions as the real draw for the reader. His skillful command of the idiom is revealed as the result of the time he spends in the library of the rehab center from which he writes, a fact that is perfunctorily explained at the the tale's end. Still, despite the fine narration, Jernigan's voice is the voice used by all of the characters. The story's two teenagers are practically mute, their adolescent rebellion clothed in sullen retreat rather than raging confrontation. Real as this may be in one sense, it's hard to accept that Jernigan surrenders to the kids' monosyllabic fortress of solitude without confrontation. On the other hand, one is compelled to go on reading in expectation of a conflict that never materializes.
The story is simple enough. A year after Jernigan's wife dies in a car crash—t-boned at the end of their driveway after a drunken fight before guests at an afternoon barbecue—he starts seeing the mother of his son's girlfriend. Their initial happiness leads the males to move in with the females, and Jernigan's descent into acute, pants-pissing alcoholism shifts into high gear. The vicious bile he unleashes on new partner Joan—in language comprised of unbridled cynicism—is all that empowers him. Her intrepid faith in love merely drives him to take every opportunity to inflict his rage on those close to him. The two females turn out to be victims rebounding from the departure of a violent abuser, an incestuous pedophile, facts they keep hidden until the abuser returns in the climactic Christmastime ending.
Ultimately, Jernigan is held together by the narration. The writing remains an impressive onslaught of verbal agility, even with a less than likable narrator and a relatively flat and uninspired story that seems to have been saved by a lot of careful, capable editing. Somehow, it provides many very entertaining passages: descriptive volleys that convey their objects with considerable clarity and bouts of dialogue between Jernigan and Joan that either ring with a warm, humanly vulnerable humor in their happier moments, while delivering some devastating kicks to the hollow of one's guts in their uncomfortably close and divisive exchanges. Jernigan is a good book to read for those interested in writing, both its flaws and achievements are rather instructive, especially as elements of a single text. I look forward to reading Gates' later works—this is his first novel. It's obvious that he is a careful writer whose love for the history and technique of letters runs deep. One could do hell of a lot worse...