In obedience to Tolstoy, it’s fair to say that each unhappy protagonist in David Gates’ new story collection, “A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me,” is unhappy in his or her own way. But, you know, there certainly are similarities.
They tend to be clever artistic types whose accomplishments haven’t matched early expectations: Yalies forcing puff pieces for Podunk newspapers; composers who don’t rate Wikipedia pages; actors stooping to pro-am Shakespeare in Vermont.
They’re also off on some disastrous dirty weekend or reaching the bleak December of their age-inappropriate romances. For pain masking, they favor weed, gin and tonics, and poisoned-sword wit.
When that doesn’t work, they try the desperate, self-conscious prayers of nonbelievers. They draw from a samey pool of literary, musical and cinematic references, two of them finding occasion to mention Ruby Keeler in “42nd Street.” Were these details to echo across books (to some degree, they do), we might have to call them redundancies; under one jacket, they can pass for motifs.
Thing is, it’s not such a problem. Ever read one of those Lorrie Moore collections where every melancholy, punning, clearsighted protagonist is, well, a Lorrie Moore type? Yeah, I love her, too. Likewise, Gates is a master of variation, or a model of persistence. His work has grown deeper since his 1991 debut, the hitting-bottom novel “Jernigan,” but his signature antihero — melancholy, punning, chatty, self-destructive — remains very much recognizable. In this book his voice is so thornily funny, so lonesomely compelling, that you don’t mind if it modulates only subtly. The biggest changeup comes in “Locals,” narrated by a Massachusetts landscaper and contractor who’s always in between his community’s social spheres, not quite “a regular educated person,” not “completely the other thing either.”
In that story, you almost think the love element will for once work out. No. This isn’t a book for the irresolutely betrothed, or for those seeking courtship tips. It’s full of flirtatious badinage so barbed that one isn’t sure if the pair will fall into bed or break each other’s noses. Usually, at least one member of every doomed couple is married. As a come-on, one guy swallows his wedding ring; the others don’t need to be so literal.
Gates doesn’t set up surprises, exactly, but you’re still jolted by the awful decision or violent break you probably saw coming. It works — I mean, no conflict or climax is false, but over a dozen stories, all the cruelty, hostility and battle-of-the-sexes sparring maps a world that seems both sharply realistic and monotonously, stagily contentious, like seeing a production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” several times in a row. Everyone agrees that harmony is dull, but there are many varieties of disharmony, no?
But wait, I’m not conveying how good this book is, how craftily conversational the prose is, how often seemingly tossed-off lines produce that coveted spine tingle, how the cadence evokes the buzz of the drugs and booze these folks liberally take in. And though Gates is no sentimentalist, he does give the customary pinch of hope in the last story. OK, it’s a story about death, but it also features — ah, here it is — a romantic relationship that just might last. Calls for a toast!
Dylan Hicks is a writer, musician and author of the novel “Boarded Windows.”