David Gates has published just two novels–Jernigan in 1991, Preston Falls in 1998–and two short story collections, Wonders of the Invisible World in 1999, and A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me in 2015. I wish there were more.
If you’ve read any of Gates’ previous books, the characters in A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me will not seem surprising. They tend to be highly educated, literate, and accomplished to varying degrees. They are also self-aware enough to know none of these traits guarantee making the best possible decisions for themselves, and they often seem caught in a state of suspension between what they feel or know they should (or should not) do and what they want or even know they are going to do.
Some readers may find them unlikable. Personally, I disagree, finding underneath their sharp and pointed dialogue, their general weariness masked by sarcasm, a kind of hope, even if it only shows up in a willingness to face the vagaries of another day. Few of these stories end in revelations or lessons learned, and I kind of like that, too.
Perhaps the real pleasure in reading these stories lies in Gates’ ability to capture a feeling or scene or characterizing detail in a single, small but powerful brush stroke. In the story An Actor Prepares, for example, a party setup is described thus: “In the backyard, they’d strung up chili-pepper lights and set out crudités, earthenware bowls of whitish dips, plastic glasses, a Manhattan skyline of bottles.”
The items are as unexceptional as the language, until the last one. The metaphor at the end of the list (it wouldn’t be as effective anywhere else) makes the image leap off the page. The mild surprise experienced by the reader mirrors the surprise of the jaded New Yorker narrator, who sees in the available variety of liquor a glimmer of hope amid the otherwise dim prospects for the party.
That, I thought, is an image (among many in the book) to marvel at, written by an author of exceptional skill and sensitivity to what language can do.