Book review: ‘Jernigan’ by David Gates

There aren’t many other ways of putting it, I loved this book. I read it in one sitting, after having it recommended by Jade Sharma, the author of ‘Problems’, my latest book review. She herself credited it as one of the first novels to introduce her to this kind of writing; a style that was conversational and more honestly personal, without that additional authorial filter.

We realise almost immediately that Jernigan is telling the story of his decline from a treatment center of some kind – most likely for alcohol – in the hopes of understanding his addiction. We learn about the bizarre and sudden death of his wife in a drunken traffic accident, which appears to kickstart a wave of decline. We watch from there as his middle-class life slowly disintegrates, sloughing apart and turning to ash like the dregs left in his coffee filter each morning, which he only drinks to balance out the drowsiness of his alcoholism. It’s pretty bleak, in an American-suburb-white-male-narcissistic-witty-wallower kind of way.

He feels far removed from his son, Danny, who had been “taking the whole thing so calmly that it was scaring the shit out of me” and it’s on the year anniversary of his wife’s death that he meets Martha, the mother of Danny’s girlfriend, and promptly moves in with her.

But it isn’t the plot that makes this novel special. It lacks much action at all, in fact – but this is a deliberate attempt to direct us alongside Jernigan as he makes a series of bad or passive decisions to draw out the repetitive, unfulfilling life that he admits he would much rather not be living. Instead of focusing on drama, Gates spends the majority of the book focusing on the intricacies of his character, showing redemptive compassion for his introspective, self-pitying protagonist, as he tries to rationalize his own terrible behavior. 

The writing style is glorious, conversational to the extreme, with Jernigan not even bothering to finish sentences if he doesn’t feel like it: “Otherwise, next time the plow comes through here, I don’t know, no need to finish the thought”. This particular sentence comes so early in the novel that it establishes an immediate connection – he doesn’t need to finish the thought because we the reader knew how it was going to end, and because the only point of his retelling is for us to understand. 

He speaks directly to us, “I hope you don’t think we’d put it in” and “We’re up all night tripping and so forth and so on and we get back to the trailer in the morning and so on this part you know”, figuratively putting his arm around the reader as if they were a friend.

We learn so much about his character from how he interacts with small objects, and deals with small scenarios at the start of the book, which is really stunning and subtle work by Gates. A few examples: 

  • “All the time thinking Fuck, wouldn’t it have been easier to just bend down, release that little catch and flip the driver’s seat forwards”, showing us his stubbornness to complete the task the way he’s started, rather than adjusting to a new technique.
  • “I didn’t feel like hunting around for scissors that I’d end up not finding anyway”, summing up a pretty negative outlook on every scenario. 
  • “Certainly that was a more comfortable view of my fatherly duty”, when having a conversation with Danny. He wants to be liked, he wants things to be easy, more than he wants to be a father with boundaries.
  • “I can’t believe it’s Peter Jernigan coming out with this stuff.” He is continually confused by how different his actions are to the man he sees himself as being. 

As well as being very introspective, the language also follows his immediate stream of consciousness – particularly in areas he can identify an issue with what he’s said, “Oh, I know, another mistake. I knew it even as I was saying it” and “A little plump, as a mother ought to be, now what kind of a thing is that to say?”

What a face on that David Gates

Jernigan is a highly flawed character, and while he acknowledges this to an extent, the readers are also given the details we need to see how much denial he is over his behavior. We can also see how Jernigan is directly impacting the people around him with his coldness, laziness and unwillingness to face the issues in front of him. Most extremely, this behavior has rubbed off on his son Danny, who (while seemingly still a little more mature that his father), does start to show some of the same traits. Rather than address the issue that he doesn’t like Clarissa much anymore, Danny jokes that: “I mean, maybe she’ll OD or something”, hoping that something will come along to snuff her out without him needing to make an active decision. We see his resentment for her, his dislike, but he doesn’t take responsibility, and is destined for a life mirroring his fathers’ bitterness. 

Just for the breakdown of the writing style alone, I found this novel super inspiring and interesting – but I did also enjoy the little dopamine rewards we receive along the way for guessing and recognising our own behavior in elements of what he does. Jernigan is super three-dimensional, and it felt like much more than me stepping into a middle-aged, drunken, miserable skin suit for the day.

The way that Jernigan’s inner monologue is expressed, means that we can both see why he is following the route of denial he wants, and also we have the distance to see the sad truth of it. We become uncomfortable, and embarrassed, and tired, just as he does, of his behavior. He’s darkly witty too, and we warm to him, despite everything he does. He’s a great example of an anti-hero, and one I enjoyed trying to understand.

Nice one, Gates. Now onto the next recommendation – Fear of Flying by Erica Jong. Anyone read it?

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