"The test results weren't in until the following Friday. On Saturday morning Finn drove James to Albany. He put James's round-trip ticket on his Visa and got him four hundred dollars, the daily limit, from a cash machine. After a goodbye hug at the gate, Finn walked back out to the car, sat on the front fender and watched the plane out of sight. Watched himself watch the plane out of sight."
This is new terrain for Gates, and he explores it incredibly well, with a deft, even hand and a vision that cuts abysmal melancholy with queasy ambivalence and jolts of comedic relief. His first two novels, Jernigan and Preston Falls, dealt almost exclusively with WASP-ish men caught like banana fish in their own cavernous Weltschmerz. In these books, Gates displayed a special talent for skewering the calcified illusions of white, middle-class, heterosexual characters who find themselves stuck between dissolute youth and a mournful middle age (neither one particularly appealing). With alternating cynical glee and heartfelt pathos, Gates picked at liberal guilt and romantic disenchantment, scabs which themselves belie an ability to ever heal. Chronic, heavy stuff, but undeniably brilliant, if somewhat limited in scope.
Gates has now shaken any suspicions of his being another one-trick pony in the stable of contemporary literature. These stories move smoothly and convincingly between gay and straight domestic drama, and range widely along vertical and horizontal axes of economic, social, and psychological endowment and ability (I'm tempted to use the term entitlement). As a whole, the collection imparts a wonderful, giddy sense of dramatic accretion, though it would be difficult to say exactly what's accumulating -- perhaps an overall feeling of grace in defeat, or meaningful (if minuscule) struggle within a world rendered meaningless by excess and decay. The stories, all equally solid, are held together in their very diversity by the integrity of the author's vision, which gives substance and tone to the invisible worlds of thought.
There are things Gates will probably never tire of harping on: psychic disillusionment amid material abundance, the creeping beauty and lurking terror of self-medication, the difficulties of maintaining intimacy for cynically self-conscious people, and conversely, the booby traps and blind spots smart people consistently fail to recognize in their lives (largely hindrances of their own making). These characteristic concerns, rather than limiting his range, provide a template through which Gates expands his authorial reach. From a story about, say, a gay bachelor raising his institutionalized sister's son ("Star Baby"), to a story about the psychic collapse of a beleaguered, dope-addled wife ("Saturn"), Gates lavishes equal attention to the telling minutiae of despair, with a heave-ho push against the stuttering id of each successive character. This level of confidence in navigation among discrete psychological states is rare these days, and precious.
Gates' dialogue -- especially between lovers on the skids -- is painfully authentic; it begs to be read aloud and given the breathy, rhythmic interpretation of erotic failure. Like Mary Gaitskill (for whom Gates has expressed admiration), he seems to know the exact moment when love goes kaput: right in the sealed-up brain, as amorphous doubts congeal to buds of unspoken suspicion, and then blossom into full-blown monsters of contempt and dissatisfaction. Here, a cuckolded husband silently contemplates the missed cues of his wife's infidelity (she lied about her sister's death to facilitate the long-distance tryst): "I ended up agreeing to everything: not to come, not to call, to let you deal with this in your own way, to let you breathe. Not to upset your mother by sending flowers. If I'd given you more of an argument, would you have broken down and confessed? Such a bizarre lie: you must have wanted me to bust you on it. So: one more time I failed you. On the other hand, you went to such lengths to make it convincing. So: one more time you arranged for me to fail you."
It's passages such as this, so intimate and yet so utterly remote, that sneak up and nail you. Gates excels at igniting the emotional bomb; you kick yourself for not smelling the smoke. His characters are the kind of people who should "know better." If indeed one of the most acute afflictions of our century is paralyzed intelligence, which floats unanchored between the treasure and trash of history, Ferdinand Celine and Celine Dion, nodding impotently at the Decline of Western Civilization (while your love life goes to hell), then Gates may well be one of its finest prognosticators.