'A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me': David Gates' signature riffs

David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times Book Critic
David Gates writes with flinty clarity in 'A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me,' says @DavidUlin

I'll be honest: I wasn't sure we'd see another book of fiction by David Gates. It's been 16 years since his last, the collection "The Wonders of the Invisible World," and even longer since his two novels, "Jernigan," a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and the magnificent "Preston Falls."

In these works, Gates staked out a territory, the anxieties of a particular corner of the middle class: artsy, at one time hip or (even slightly) radical, aspirational less in the financial sense than that of creativity or spirit. That these aspirations have crumbled is part of the point, as his characters reckon with the compromises, physical and emotional, that living brings.

"I suppose it's what Yeats said — find your work and choose your mate," an older architect muses in the novella "Banishment," describing the essence of a successful life. The irony, of course, is that he can do neither one himself.

"Banishment" opens Gates' fourth book, "A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me," which gathers the novella and 11 stories published, over the last decade or so, in the New Yorker, Tin House and the Paris Review. The collection's title comes from the bluegrass song "My Sinful Past," recorded in 1961 by the Stanley Brothers, and it's a desire, or a hope, that confounds nearly every character Gates portrays.

"What goes by the name of love is banishment, with now and then a postcard from the homeland," the novella's female protagonist suggests, quoting Samuel Beckett, and this bleak attitude of acceptance — not existential, precisely, but unsentimental — is what resonates. For her, fiftysomething, once a writer, life has not so much passed her by as been expended (I will not say wasted) on lusts and passing fancies: self-indulgence may be the better term.

"When she finally left," the narrator recalls of the lesbian fling that torpedoed her second marriage, "Madeleine wouldn't take her back, and I could never have returned to the house on the hilltop: we both gave up our lives for nothing. Which sounds akin to some holy undertaking, like saints renouncing the world and moving toward the pure empty light, except I suppose that what we did to other people wasn't so saintlike."

There it is, the tension between the profane and the sacred, between the height of our ambitions and the depths of our desires. What Gates is saying is that here we find the truest and most awful thing about ourselves, that we contradict our interests in the service of our needs.

And what are these needs? Most often, in Gates' world, they are romantic, although romance itself rarely filters in. Instead, these stories are full of faithless spouses, relationships that unravel in an instant, built on mutual self-deception, if not outright lies. In "A Secret Station," a septuagenarian goes off the rails after his wife leaves him, while "Desecrators" involves an editor at an online magazine who takes up with one of his writers, only to have their weekend dalliance dissolve.

"So would you have contempt for me," he asks, "if this turned out to make me a better husband?" — but the real meaning of that question doesn't strike us until he returns home. There, after checking in with his young daughter, he listens to his wife play Schubert. "Amazing," Gates writes, "still, in the general what-a-piece-of-work-is-man sort of way, even if no longer something to love a person for."

That's something of a signature riff for Gates, that mix of intellect and emotion, the casual appreciation of, and disregard for, what we might call the verities. His characters are smart and cultured, educated and erudite. Still, if this makes them engaged, it finally serves to distance them from their lives.

In the title story — my call for finest in the collection — an amateur bluegrass picker allows an old friend to live out his final days in the living room of his New Hampshire farmhouse. Their bond is loose, built out of a shared fixation on the music, which in the end is not much of a bond at all.

After the friend dies, the narrator's girlfriend calls him out on this; "You don't get what I'm telling you," she declares. "I'm not spending another night there. You can do what you want. … Sing your dead-people songs, whatever. Read your dead-people books. … Look, this is my fault — I should have helped you. But you don't even know who I am." The implication is that he has focused on the wrong things, that his passions have allowed him to avoid true passion, to commit to living in the here and now.

"You see all this as a defeat, I know," he says, referring to his decision to move on from the past with her, to buy a house in town. "I would have. But I can't begin to tell you." It is as if the real story only begins as the written story ends.

That's a neat trick, and it infuses several of the pieces here with unexpected possibility. Before we get too optimistic, though, we need to ask: possibility of what? Gates writes, as he always has, with a flinty clarity, an awareness of exactly what awaits. I think of the architect in "Banishment" (or even the idea of love as a form of banishment), as well as the narrator of "The Curse of the Davenports," whose drunken reconciliation with his ex-wife as they wait out their troubled teenage son is both relief of sorts and entirely meaningless.

Not every story in "A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me" has such nuance; on occasion, as in "A Place Where Nothing Ever Happens" or "Monsalvat," it feels as if Gates has gone once too often to the well. But at their best, these efforts capture a floating insubstantiality we can't help but recognize because it also belongs to us.

"You always like to say," the protagonist of "Locals," a musician turned contractor, insists, "that if you were young and starting out again you'd do this or you'd do that, but I don't think anybody seriously means it, and it's not going to happen anyway. … But 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."

A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me
Stories and a Novella

David Gates
Alfred A. Knopf: 314 pp., $25.95

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