The protagonist in David Gates’ novel, Peter Jernigan, is a mess. As the novel opens, he’s been up all night driving through the New Jersey snow. The sun is up and blinding now as he makes his way to Uncle Fred’s camp. He longs to get the car off the road, feed lots of wood into the stove to warm up the cabin then drink what’s left of the gin in the bottle on the seat next to him, washing down four Pamprins with it and sleep the sleep of the just. We know he gets into the cabin and anticipates cutting some wood and getting warm. Chapter Two opens with Jernigan reflecting that he has Uncle Fred to thank for getting him into this place. And for calling the state police, who carried me out of the trailer and rushed me to the hospital. But he doesn’t remember any of that and, horribly, he says, They got there too late for my thumb and forefinger — the surgeon almost had to do (meaning cut off) the whole hand — but the essential man, was, and is, still intact. Which is the big thing, right, the essential man? Jernigan. And, of course, we wonder, who is this guy? How did he end up here? Who’s Uncle Fred? Turns out Uncle Fred is not anyone’s uncle, just a friend of Jernigan’s from college who got the nickname Uncle Fred because he looked like some kid’s uncle.
The book is written in a casual, tossed-off kind of way which I found particularly jarring when Jernigan’s story gets pretty serious, and then seriously dire. Turns out Jernigan is the master of the off-hand comment, a clever literary device that keeps me wondering and guessing throughout the novel. And Jernigan is written in a self-consciousness style. Often, in Dickensian fashion, he talks directly to the reader. Like when he veers off the main story and into a vignette about Judith and we’re wondering who’s Judith? though we understand that Jernigan’s had a relationship with her and that she didn’t understand him as well as Uncle Fred always has. After the vignette, he says, But we’re jumping all around here and losing track. Not that I mind losing track, far from it. But. Okay, I easily fall into the style. And at the end of Chapter Two, when Jernigan says, End of reminiscence, I’m ready for the real story. Except not. Because the real story is how Jernigan got into this mess — injured and off by himself in a musty-smelling shithole of a trailer. He tosses off a kind of a prayer, asking forgiveness from his son for being a drunk and for knowing he’s probably not capable of doing better, since he has failed at least once before at getting sober.
Jernigan’s story is tragic. His wife (Judith) died in a drunken car accident on the Fourth of
July. The real story opens on the anniversary of that day where, he tells us, by way of commemoration I was going to mow the lawn and watch the Yankee game and try to figure out the evening from there. And he challenges the reader, Oh, I know how bad this sounds: okay, fine So what do you think would have been appropriate? He’s got me again. There is no appropriate way to commemorate this. Jernigan lives in a a God damn tract house because he’s into the degradation of it. He lives with his fifteen year old son, Danny, who seems to be growing up despite Jernigan’s complete lack of parenting skills. He does worry about Danny, but never seems able to discipline him, not when he finds him smoking cigarettes or weed, skipping school or having sex with his very young and equally damaged girlfriend. Mostly, Jernigan points out the behavior, shrugs and says something like, he [Danny] wasn’t without some self-discipline, and . . . his attention span was all right even though I had taken LSD and he had watched so much television. Yikes. Whenever Danny does something that makes the reader cringe, he asks his dad, Am I going to get in trouble? And Jernigan usually answers, I guess not, and then rambles on about why the thing Danny’s doing is a bad idea, I mean, I know how boring all this Voice of Experience shit is, but believe me. . . And through flashbacks, we learn that Jernigan’s own father was no paragon of parental role models either. It seems he had a successful career as an artist until he started to drink himself to death. Alcohol is the real villain in Jernigan’s life.
And so it goes throughout the rambling tragic story where Jernigan continues to make worse and worse choices, moving in with Danny’s girlfriend’s mother who may or may not be divorced, skipping work to stay home, drink and watch television until he gets himself fired, selling his house so he really can’t go home again, and finally, the run-up to the alcohol-fuelled drive to Uncle Fred’s Farm.
When I finished Jernigan, I asked myself why I kept reading, knowing, as I did, that the end would be Peter Jernigan in some kind of rehab facility where he’s not making much progress. Can Jernigan turn his life around? Apparently not. What keeps the reader going is the up close and personal style in which it’s written. Peter Jernigan needs to tell this story and we need to listen. Is Jernigan the quintessential New Jersey novel? The protagonist
here is not looking for a center in his life, he has given up on that. In his scheme to undo himself, as the author suggests, he has found the perfect place to do it: New Jersey. Jernigan is a train wreck and we can’t look away.
In terms of giving me a sense of New Jersey as a place — not so much. Jernigan’s house is just one of many cookie-cutter tract houses dotting the landscape. His girlfriend’s house is better, more solid, in a better neighborhood. But the place is, according to Jernigan, Just a pretty new England town with no reason for anybody to be there. Again, the quintessential suburban never-never land.