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. [Read more…] about Jernigan, by David Gates