The Wonders of the Invisible World

by David Gates

Published by Alfred A. Knopf

258 pages, 1999

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Reviewed by Charles Smyth


In his first short-story collection, The Wonders of the Invisible World, David Gates turns his keen observational powers, honed in two novels (Jernigan and Preston Falls) and a critic's career at Newsweek, on the class of Manhattan professionals he knows best: writers, graphic designers, filmmakers -- successful, creative people mostly in their late-30s and 40s. With sometimes razor-edged sarcasm, sometimes heartfelt compassion, Gates describes his characters in fine detail, showing how "neurotic self-subversion," as he likes to call it, so often undermines their progress in life.

"Stories need tension," Gates once said. "Two people getting along really, really well might make for a satisfying life, but who could stay awake reading about it?" Not to worry. Putting his keystrokes where his mouth is, Gates keeps more than enough pressure on his characters in these stories to hold our interest.

Two of them, Paula and Steven, have abandoned New York in favor of the city's leafier, lower-wattage suburbs. They made the move partly for the beauty and the quiet, partly "so we'd each have a workroom," she tells us in "The Bad Thing," this collection's opening story. "It's all so postindustrial: no need anymore to be bodily on Lexington Avenue from ten to six. Up here I'd be able to take my job lightly and my work seriously." Paula's a designer; Steven, an illustrator. She's unhappy; he's dissatisfied. They're going to have a child. He starts smoking again (but hides it from her). She gets drunk one day on brandy (and covers it up). He confesses the smoking to her; she keeps the drinking a secret. He discovers the half-empty bottle of Rémy. "You're pregnant and you're drunk?" he screams at her. "Don't you know what that can do? Do you care? How could you do it?" There's no answer.

"The Mail Lady" finds another character, Lew, in the damaged aftermath of a terrible stroke and Alice, his wife, trying bravely to keep her spirits up and care for him. Frightened, angry, diminished, Lew clings to his religious faith to ward off the abyss of despair. It isn't easy. "Talk to myself as I will, pray as I will for understanding, I can see no spiritual significance whatever in my ruin. And let's for heaven's sake not be mealy-mouthed about it: I am ruined, in this life. . . . Dragging a half-dead body from room to room, numb lips and steak-thick tongue refusing to move as I command." Pressure doesn't get much greater than this.

An admirer of Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver, David Gates writes like neither one of them. He packs more into his sentences than those two, who were famous for their pared-down prose. Gates likes to explore motivation and unseen drives -- the "invisible world" -- and his characters' inner dialogue is often livelier and more revealing than anything they say. Not one for sentimentality, Gates can sometimes be tough on his characters, especially when describing the depths of their self-contempt. But he hasn't given up on the power of the human heart.

We feel it working in "Star Baby," a touching, hopeful story, one of the best in Wonders. Billy, like Paula and Steven, has recently left Manhattan. Retreating from a complicated gay relationship that was "like some daisy-chain soap opera out of the Age of Disco with a certain I Love Lucy quality," he moves to a suburb of Albany, taking over the family house, Dad, and now Mom, gone. His sister, Cassie, is in emergency drug rehab in Boston, leaving her 7-year-old son, Deke, in her brother's care. The story traces the growing bond between Billy and Deke with tenderness and affection. Worried about the impact of his homosexuality on the boy, Billy, checking on Deke in the bathtub -- Has he slipped and cracked his head? Has he drowned? -- is relieved to find that he's not aroused by his nephew's naked body.

It isn't long before we -- and Deke -- discover that Billy is becoming a far better parent to the boy than Cassie ever was (or would ever be). But she is his mother, and she tells Billy that she intends to take her son back when she gets straight. On their way to Boston to "clean up" her apartment (i.e., dispose of her drugs), Billy gently breaks the custodial news to Deke. "But I want to be with you," the boy cries, making a desperate attempt to jump out of the car.

"Billy's heart begins to slow down. He looks over at Deke. The pale skin, through which a blue vein shows at his temple. The soft hair that should have been trimmed weeks ago. The ragged, scuffed sneakers Billy's been meaning to replace. So much need and nobody else to help."

"Know thyself" urges a famous admonition, but the characters in these 10 stories have largely ignored that advice, preferring to acquire worldly sophistication. Listening to recorded jazz in a crowded, noisy bar, they can tell the difference between the Decca Billie Holiday and the Columbia Billie Holiday. But they can't distinguish a genuine feeling from a fabricated one. Gifted at clever conversation, they're rarely at a loss for le mot juste. But emotional expression is a foreign language.

David Gates is interested in the distance between the inner and outer worlds, between emotion and thought, between the heart and the head. In these stories, he describes what happens when the force of internal turbulence sends shock waves into external life. And he does that very, very well. | December 1999


CHARLES SMYTH is a contributing editor of January Magazine.