Monday, April 4, 2011

Preston Falls, by David Gates

Yet another writer from upstate New York. Like Joyce Carol Oates and Richard Russo, Gates takes us to a workingman's world - but not quite.

Doug Willis is somehow dissatisfied with his life. He mocks his work and makes unfunny, often bitter remarks to his wife, and he spends more time away from home than he does there, giving his children a sense that he hardly lives there. Finally he reaches a point when he just wants to be away for a while to think things through. He uses the excuse of fixing up the cabin he bought in Preston Falls, four hours away from home near New York City, and takes a leave of absence.

But that isn't all. Willis reimagines himself as some sort of down-to-earth blue collar worker, communing with the truck. And he does get himself a truck to match.

And thus the novel begins with Willis in his truck with the dog, and his wife and two children in the Cherokee, following, driving to the cabin. It is a holiday weekend but the children have to be back at school the following Tuesday, and Doug's wife Jean has to be back at work. Doug, however, has two months to work through whatever is going on inside him.

Things don't quite go as planned. After Jean and the kids leave, a day early, Doug decides to follow them, join them at a campground between Preston Falls and their home down south. He gets into an altercation with the park ranger and before he knows it he has been arrested. This clever move is compounded by his follow-up relationship with the lawyer who freed him. Complication follows complication.

The story is about Doug and Jean. They cannot seem to speak to each other without biting sarcasm or defensiveness. Every comment either makes is received in the worst possible context. At times I just wanted to slap the both of them, tell them to grow up and learn to listen.

The story is even more just about Doug. His attempts to figure himself out, to justify his existence. His every move is punctuated by his efforts to be somebody else, and those efforts don't succeed particularly well. Because he can't seem to figure out what he stands for, he is "neither fish nor fowl". He can't seem to take a stand. He hardly knows his own mind. Is this because he is overthinking everything? Possibly. But more likely he just can't get there, can't figure it out.

That's the bare bones. The writing is often so very funny, so real I could hardly stand it. Particularly when we peek in on a scene or two featuring Jean, I wondered how could this man Gates understand women as well as he does? His command of Willis is greater, is richer, of course.

A rich, rewarding, funny and sad story.