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Nashville Scene Tales of the City

Short-story collection taps into the world of disconnected urban denizens

By Michael Sims

SEPTEMBER 7, 1999:  David Gates is the author of two highly acclaimed novels, Jernigan and Preston Falls. You can also see his name regularly as a staff writer for Newsweek. The stories in his first collection, The Wonders of the Invisible World, originally appeared in a variety of locations, from the literary magazines Ploughshares and Grand Street to high-profile glossies such as GQ and Esquire. Some have been reprinted in The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories.

Many of Gates' characters are bookish; they're familiar not only with the movies and music of their era but also with such topics as early jazz and foreign films. Most aren't intellectuals; it's just that they try to aim a little above the couch-potato set. They work contemporary sorts of jobs, such as staffing a help line for Windows users. They go through the motions of romances that fizzled out years ago, some of them desperately turning to new lovers to get some reminder of the electricity life is supposed to have. Part of the satisfaction of reading Gates is the feeling that you can find plenty of people like this anywhere in urban America.

The 10 roomy stories in these 257 pages seem at first to start just anywhere. The title story begins lyrically but quickly shifts gears to the ironic self-awareness that most of Gates' first-person narrators possess:

"When the subway door's about to close, you hear these two tones, like the phoebe's call: three one. I tried to find it once on the clarinet, out of curiosity, and all it is, it's just a third. D down to B-flat, say. Yes, well, obviously the pheobe's call is sweet and breathy and organic and all that good stuff; I'm talking about the interval. And yes, I know it's cheap irony, this thing of juxtaposing urban and pastoral. What am I supposed to do, not notice it? And, again yes, I know the Robert Frost thing about how the phoebes wept or didn't weep or whatever the fuck. You know, what don't I know?"

Naturally, it turns out that what this obsessively self-aware and cultured narrator doesn't know is how to live his life as if it really mattered to him. Gates' characters are not the posturing simians of the Hemingway mode, but they remain as emotionally mute and needy as most other human beings. Gates knows that deep down we all yearn for the same thing, whether we express it in the search for sex or drugs or God: We want our lives to have some kind of meaning beyond our animal urges.

One of his most affecting narrators is genuinely inarticulate: the elderly stroke victim whose interior monologue becomes "The Mail Lady." When the man admits to himself that he feels as if he is "clutching at a moving train, crying, At least remember me," he hastens to add in an aside to himself, "Keep me mindful that another home is prepared for me and that I shall have a new body, incorruptible." But he doesn't believe it in the rock-solid way that he wants to believe it. A former hard drinker, he has converted to a passionate Christianity and tries his best to calmly await his fate.

Gates is as convincing as an elderly stroke victim as he is in his many other voices. His protagonists may be male or female, young or old, casually gay or passionately heterosexual. As if demonstrating the adage that life is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel, he accomplishes savage humor in the same moment as heartfelt emotion. The narrator of "Beating" puts her drunken husband to bed and then, for the umpteenth time, cries all the way through Disney's Beauty and the Beast. The pregnant woman who recounts "The Bad Thing" prays that her child won't be a boy: "Dear God, if You've made it a boy, go back, in Your time-scrunching omnipotence, and re-do the instant of its conception. Not forgetting to add, If it be Thy will."

Many of Gates' characters are disconnected, lonely people who find themselves behaving with the sort of offhand cruelty we allow ourselves when under strain but later regret. Meanwhile, others prove themselves honorable human beings. Billy, the protagonist of "Star Baby," is responsibly caring for Deke, the 7-year-old son of his sister Cassie, while she works her way through drug rehab. Every other day, Cassie calls to check on Deke (and frequently to mock her brother's homosexuality). Billy reads to Deke, bathes him, helps him carve a jack-o-lantern.

By following these people through their average daily lives, and by refusing to succumb to manufactured histrionics for dramatic shorthand, Gates brings his characters to life. Step by step, with the TV shows they watch and the food they eat, with their chats about seemingly inconsequential topics, he builds up the texture of their day-to-day lives--and shows the casual moves that lead to major changes.

One of Gates' other virtues as a storyteller is his refusal to label every emotion or spell out every nuance. Usually, his stories end as casually as they begin, without buildup and almost before you realize it. At the culmination of "Star Baby," Cassie is ready to come home and asks Billy to clean the drugs out of her apartment first. On the way to pick her up, Deke tries to open the car door at 65 mph, and Billy winds up explaining to him about his mother's return.

Afraid of his mother, the boy protests:

" 'But I want to be with you.'

"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've been trimmed weeks ago. The ragged, scuffed sneakers Billy's been meaning to replace. So much need, and nobody else to help. He takes a deep breath, lets it out. 'Well?' he says. 'I'm here, right? I'm not going anywhere.' Kid doesn't get it. Billy didn't get it himself, until just now."

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