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A Novel

Written by David GatesAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by David Gates


List Price: $13.99


On Sale: September 29, 2010
Pages: 352 | ISBN: 978-0-307-76591-8
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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"Beautifully written.... Gates [has a] pitch-perfect ear for contemporary speech...and...[a] keen, journalistic eye."--Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

In this comic, fiercely compassionate novel, David Gates, whose first novel Jernigan was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, sends his protagonist on a visceral journey to the dark side of suburban masculinity, explores the claims youth makes on middle age, and the tenacious --at times perverse--power of love to assert itself.

When Doug Willis has a mid-life crisis, he doesn't join a gym or have an affair. Instead he gets himself arrested while camping with his wife and kids, takes a two month leave of absence from his PR job, and retreats to his farmhouse in rural Preston Falls--where he plugs in his guitar and tries to shut out his life.

While his wife, Jean, struggles to pay the bills and raise their sullen, skeptical kids, Willis's plans for hiatus crumble into Dewars-and-cocaine fueled disarray. A shattered window, an unguarded gun, and a shady small town attorney force a crisis--and Willis can't go home again. With its biting humor and harsh realism, Preston Falls confirms David Gates as a talent in the tradition of Russell Banks and Richard Ford: a master of dark truths and private longings.


Late Friday afternoon they start for Preston Falls: Jean and the kids in the Cherokee, Willis in his truck, with Rathbone the dog riding shotgun. When Willis proposed that Roger ride with them and make it an all-male expedition, Roger said, "I don't want to." The one boy in America ashamed to be seen in a pickup truck. Or was that not the problem?

Among his colleagues (a word he precedes with a half-beat's hesitation, to suggest quotation marks) Willis keeps dropping the odd allusion to his truck, lest they forget he's a badass outlaw. And five mornings a week it's his fuck-you to the Volvos in the commuter lot at the Chesterton station. A '77 Dodge V-8, with mustard-yellow paint flaking off to show the original dark green, patches of gray Bondo on fenders and rocker panels, and--this is the best thing--a black driver's-side door that must've come off a whole different model, because the chrome doesn't line up. He spotted it one weekend in Want Ad Digest: "4WD, some rust, runs good." Guy wanted eight, Willis beat him down to seven, then put another seven-fifty into it, not counting five for a pull-out tape deck and decent speakers; so for fifteen hundred smackers he's got himself the hillbilly shitheap par excellence, complete with old-truck smell, but actually semireliable. Willis is Director of Public Affairs for Dandineau Beverages, bottlers of Sportif, the original caffeine-laced Gatorade knockoff, plus the line of flavored iced teas without all the minerals and shit.

Jean backs the Cherokee out of the driveway, then sets the hand brake and walks back to the truck. "You want to lead the way?" she says. Otherwise she's going to have his damn headlights in her mirror the whole trip.

"Ah," he says. "The alpha dog and his dog." One of his jokes, or whatever they are. He salutes, touching the visor of his Raiders cap; she looks up at the embroidered pirate, complete with cutlass and eye patch. This is going to be a long weekend. In both senses. Tomorrow Willis's brother is coming up, probably bringing the girlfriend, and the Champ-and-Willis show can be wearing. Waiting behind him for the light at the corner of Route 9, she sees him reach across and stroke Rathbone's head and say something. Probably That's my boy. Melanie, who won the coin toss for front seat, says taking two vehicles is wasteful. Jean walks her through it: Daddy's staying in Preston Falls and they have to come back to Chesterton Monday night, because Tuesday's the first day of school and a workday, and because Aunt Carol's coming Tuesday night. Mel says, "Right, I know all that. I'm not stupid, Mother." Roger's by himself in the back, going Poom, poom. He's found his old Shredder action figure in the little storage thing, and he's working its bendable arms to make it punch itself in the face.

She follows Willis's truck to the McDonald's just before the Tappan Zee, their traditional Friday night stop when they first bought the place in Preston Falls. When he pulls up to the squawk box, Jean watches him talk down from his window, then ceremoniously touch his cap again; the truck lurches forward to the pickup window. She can hear that he's got music going, but she can't make out what. She orders a chicken fajita, the only thing even vaguely healthy. Roger orders all the stuff in a Happy Meal but won't call it a Happy Meal, and she thinks, Well, good for you: you're not buying into that at least. (Putting on the most hopeful interpretation.) Melanie won't eat anything from McDonald's. She's brought along rice cakes in a plastic bag and insists on eating them dry.

Willis has finished his Big Mac and fries before they even get on to the Tappan Zee, and Rathbone guzzled down his plain burger in three jerks of his head. The Friday of Labor Day weekend at six o'clock: could they possibly have timed it any worse? Traffic on the bridge creeping and stopping, creeping and stopping, Willis sweating like a bastard in the heat and golden glare, trying not to look at his temperature gauge too often, worrying about his clutch. He snaps the tape deck off; at zero miles an hour, Steve Earle is just another fucking irritant. Poor Rathbone has his head out the window, panting, sides heaving, tongue dripping drool. Willis unsnaps his seat belt and takes his eyes off the road long enough to lean down and swish a finger around in the weighted dog dish on the floor, hoping the sound will remind Rathbone. Rathbone looks over, and Willis says, "Yes, water. You know, water? Lap lap lap?" He turns back to the traffic just in time to see a Lexus cut in front of him. He yells that the Lexus is a cocksucking son of a bitch, but its tinted windows are up.

Back in the Cherokee, Jean's running the air conditioner, but if this traffic doesn't start moving, she's going to have to turn it off and open the windows, because the needle's creeping up toward the red. There's probably some music all three of them could agree on, but she doesn't have the energy for negotiations. Maybe Mel and Roger will be on better behavior when her sister gets here. Carol said she'll stay in Chesterton for September, and perhaps into October. Because she misses fall in the Northeast. Jean supposes anything's possible.

"How come Daddy gets so much vacation and you don't?" says Mel.

"It's not actually vacation," Jean says. "It's a leave of absence."

"Oh. Well, excuse me." Mel opens the glove compartment, takes out a tape--Jean can't see what--then tosses it back in, making the plastic clatter. "In answer to your question," Jean says, "I haven't been at my job as long as Daddy's been at his. And anyway I can't afford to just take two months off." Jean is the in-house design person for The Paley Group, a firm of investment consultants. After she took the job, Willis started doing a little faux man-of-the-people riff, where he'd go on about how the whole stock market was a conspiracy to bleed the working stiff.

"Can Daddy afford it?" says Mel.

"So he says. He worked the numbers on the computer, and he thinks we might
actually make out a little better because of taxes."

Willis is far up ahead; she's let three cars bully their way in front of her. She sees his palm banging on the roof of the truck.

"I don't get it," says Mel.

"I'm still hungry," Roger says. "You just ate," says Jean. Then, to Mel: "If you make
less money, your taxes are lower."

"I know," Roger says, "but I still am."

"You'll just have to hang on," says Jean. "There should be food up at the house."

"But I might be asleep then."

"Why don't you just go to sleep now, Roger?" says Mel. "So, Mom? He's just going to stay up there and work on the house the whole time?"

"I don't know how much he'll actually get done. I think he really just needs to get away."

"Yeah, right," says Mel. "Away from us."

"That's not so," Jean says. "Everybody needs to recharge sometimes."

"Yeah, right," says Mel.

"Are you disappointed that he's not coming back down for the first day of school?"

"Why would I be?" says Mel. "I mean, I've already had like how many first days of school in my life."

"What about you, Rog?" says Jean. "Do you feel disappointed that Daddy won't be there?" This is dancing on the line between encouraging them to voice their feelings and egging them on against their father.

"I don't care," Roger says. "Mom, I'm really hungry. I'm not kidding. How much longer is it going to be?"

"Quite a while," says Jean. "Especially with this traffic."

"But like how long?"

"I don't know. Maybe another four hours?" This sounds terrible. "Three and a half?"

Roger throws Shredder to the floor and says, "Shit."

"You have a time-out," says Jean. When they're in the car, this means nine minutes without speaking. One minute per year. In the mirror she sees Roger shrug and mouth Shit shit shit.
David Gates|Author Q&A

About David Gates

David Gates - Preston Falls

Photo © Marion Ettlinger

DAVID GATES lives in Missoula, where he teaches at the University of Montana, and in Granville, New York, where he is associated with the Bennington Writing Seminars. A former Guggenheim Fellow, for many years he was a writer and editor at Newsweek, where he specialized in music and books.

Author Q&A

Q: In Jernigan, you gave us a front-row seat at the unraveling of a self-destructive man. Again, in Preston Falls, we watch as Doug Willis, a successful corporate flack, throws his work and family life into chaos. Why does this topic fascinate you?

A: You mean there are other topics? Well, esthetically, I find the downward spiral a pleasing shape, with comic possibilities all the way to the bottom. And certainly Peter Jernigan and Doug Willis started out as improvisations on some of my own worst qualities. Nabokov once told an interviewer that such characters as Humbert Humbert were "outside my inner self like the mournful monsters of a cathedral facade--demons placed there merely to show that they have been booted out." That's more or less the way I see my guys, though I'd hesitate to assert that kind of big-time moral serenity for fear of putting the whammy on myself. It's easy to dismiss the fascination with self-destruction as morbid and prurient, but I like to think prurience is rooted in moral or ethical or spiritual curiosity. How does evil behave when it really spits on its hands and goes to work? What shall I do to be saved?

Q: We see the destruction of the Willis marriage from both Doug's and his wife Jean's perspective. Was it difficult to write from a woman's point of view?

A: No worse than writing from Willis's, once I got her character up and running. For a couple of years before Preston Falls, I'd tended to write short stories in the female character's voice--I must have done three or four like that--so when I decided this book needed to be opened out beyond Willis's view of things, getting into Jean's head (and body) didn't seem as daunting as it might have. In fact, after hanging out with Willis awhile, I was glad to be there. At one point, by the way, I had the bad idea of doing a full-length section from each of the two kids' points of view as well. I think the nine-year-old son's part was going to be all in dialogue with his shrink. Or was it going to be a Holden Caulfieldesque document that he was writing for his shrink? Some damn fool thing.

Q: You offer a rather bleak picture of what is supposed to be Happily Ever After--kids, a nice house in the 'burbs, a summer home. What happens that ruins the happy ending?

A: I'm not sure Preston Falls has an absolutely unhappy ending, but I know what you mean. Personally, I'm all for family life and disposable income; still, you can't help noticing they don't necessarily make everybody happy, wise and virtuous. In the case of Willis and Jean, the good life turns on them because of their own decisions, though the cards were stacked against them from the get-go. (I ought to know; I stacked 'em myself.) I mean, look at the wretched families each of them came from. Willis brings to the party a stubborn bohemian contempt for the life he lives, which he finances by working at a job he considers, with reason, an affront to his spirit. And Jean, meanwhile...but I shouldn't talk the whole book away.

Q: You actually spent a night in jail once, as Doug Willis does. How much of the novel is based upon your own experience?

A: I used lots and lots of superficial things, then dismantled, recombined them and let them mutate. The book begins with Willis taking a leave of absence from his job; I took leaves of absence from Newsweek to write the book. Willis spends his night in jail after an altercation with a ranger at a state park; I had a similar altercation five or six years back, but I spent my night in jail more than 30 years ago, when I ran a stop sign and the cops found marijuana seeds in the glove compartment. Willis's country house borrows from my own place upstate, but it's based equally on two other houses I've known, and has some features that I've entirely invented. I gave Willis my own .22 rifle, but unlike him I don't carry it around in my truck--which is a Ford and not a Dodge--in order to take coked-out potshots at deer signs. Oh, and I don't have two kids, my marriage isn't on the rocks and I don't smuggle dope in the back of my guitar amplifier. Which isn't a Fender Twin.

Q: Before joining Newsweek, you were a phone operator for Western Union, a stock clerk, a cab driver, a square dance musician (still for hire, I understand), and almost a furniture mover. How does this background influence your writing?

A: And don't forget the car wash and the chicken farm. I doubt all of those supposedly colorful experiences put together have provided more than a couple of details for my fiction. What's important is the cast of mind that led a smart kid--second in his high school class!--to do all this stuff until the prospects started to scare him. The tension between my respectable job in corporate journalism and my bohemian roughneck period is part of what's behind doubleminded characters like Peter Jernigan and Doug Willis. And yes, if anybody calls looking for a string band, you've got that number I gave you.

Q: You weave a lot of song lyrics throughout Preston Falls. Do you listen to music while you write?

A: No, I can't. I tend to focus on it and get distracted, especially if it's got words. Years ago, when I first started writing fiction, I'd sometimes write while playing late-period John Coltrane, the squealing-and-shrieking stuff, on the theory that it would energize me, or that I could somehow piggyback on his creativity, or simply that it was a cool thing to do. I didn't keep it up for long. Now, once in a great while, if I've got some more or less mechanical work to do--typing longhand revisions into the computer, say--I might play something appropriately relentless. Miles Davis, Jack Johnson, the Chemical Brothers and a bunch of coffee got me through a couple of late nights with Preston Falls. And my printer's so antiquated that I was able to listen to all of Parsifal while printing out an early, 750-page version of the novel, tearing the sidestrips off the fanfold paper and numbering the pages.

Q: You have lived through one of publishing's worst nightmares--your original manuscript of Preston Falls, loaded with changes representing a couple of months of work, went up in flames with a number of others in a truck fire. How did the novel change as a result?

A: I guess I'll never know, will I? The hell of it is, in going back over the book, I could remember some of the problems I'd found, but not my brilliant solutions. Fortunately, I had a handwritten draft of a couple of absolutely crucial paragraphs near the end, but the rest of the changes had to be reinvented. I suspect Preston Falls actually ended up a little better as a result of this bizarre disaster. I know that I took out some of my fury by cutting slow stuff I might have been willing to tolerate. But I'd still love to see that lost version now, in sort of the same way I'd love to know if Mallory made it to the summit of Everest, or who really killed JFK.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Nag, nag, nag. Yes, I'm well aware I've got a contract for a book of short stories, thank you very much. I'm trying to rescue an old story that's never quite worked, and I've started a new one that I don't know what I think of. The characters and situation seem promising, but it might be a good idea to make something happen in it eventually.



"A brilliantly written portrait of a man and a family in distress."--National Public Radio

"Preston Falls is mesmerizing, disturbing, a brilliantly overheard monologue --the nada of a man who's been there, done that, and is out of places to go."-- The Boston Globe
David Gates

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David Gates - Preston Falls

Photo © Marion Ettlinger

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  • Preston Falls by David Gates
  • April 06, 1999
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $17.00
  • 9780679756439

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