A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me by David Gates, review by Bruce Jacobs
Since his caustic, funny, compassionate first novel, Jernigan, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize almost 25 years ago, former longtime Newsweek book and music critic David Gates has published only one other novel and a collection of stories. A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me is his first book of fiction in 15 years, and once again he mines the same rich lode of broken (or at best, bent) lives beneath the surface of New England professionals and academics. In story after story, musicians, doctors, architects and especially journalists descend into drink, divorce and promiscuity. They are getting old, and their careers and dreams have long passed. Their children are grown and seldom forgiving of their parents' busted marriages and alcoholic isolation. Sounds bleak, but over the years Gates has honed his sense of irony and sad humor. His characters' smart, often sarcastic dialogue reflects the hard-earned knowledge of people approaching the end--what Paul, a former mandolin player dying of liver cancer, calls "serious October baseball." They know they've messed up. They know their exes and themselves too well. As the minor composer and songwriter in "Alcorian A-1949" describes his day, "I go to the piano and work at working, until disgust tolls fancy's knell.... I stop by the state liquor store.... I sip the hours away, playing computer solitaire and listening to the radio."
Perhaps because its length gives Gates room to turn snapshots into a panorama, the opening novella "Banishment" is the best piece. Its narrator is a snarky, on-again, off-again journalist who took an entry-level job at a Hudson Valley paper ("not much of a job for a gal with a degree from Yale, but we can't all be Naomi Wolf") and married an earnest colleague. With many asides to "you" the reader, she describes leaving her first husband to marry an architect in his 70s, despite his warning that "things could get a little unattractive in the homestretch." Although he designs and builds them a dramatic knock-off of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater house on a rural hilltop outside Rhinebeck, he becomes crankier and more frequently drunk as he ages. She leaves him for a surprising new sexual partner and a job at an even lower tier news outlet--a free want-ad paper where she can be "the first managing editor to get Samuel Beckett into The Pennypincher...." Like most of Gates' stories, "Banishment" doesn't conclude so much as just end.
Age, divorce and alcoholism take their harsh tolls. In "A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me," the narrator accepts his dying friend's request to take him in and nurse him through his final days. It is not pretty, and the narrator comments to his wife: "I don't know what to hope for.... Quality, I guess. And then not too much quantity." Whatever Gates's oeuvre might lack in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.