JERNIGAN by David Gates


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Newsweek critic Gates debuts with the fictional memoirs of drunk in his midlife state of emergency: a sad suburban tale of failure, self-degradation, and the obliteration of consciousness, relieved only by the narrator's sardonic sense of humor.

Raised by his artist father, Peter Jernigan rejected bohemia for the promise of middle-class bliss in New Jersey. He commutes from his ``split-level shitbox'' to his Manhattan job in real estate until, a year or so before his 40th birthday, things fall apart with a vengeance. It begins when his wife dies in a drunken suicidal accident during a July 4th barbecue. Jernigan's teen-aged son, Danny, retreats farther into heavy-metal euphoria, and Jernigan's drinking increases exponentially. On the first anniversary of his wife's death, he meets the mother of Danny's girlfriend, the latter a 14-year-old recovering heroin addict who now does only pot and acid. When Jernigan is fired from his job, he and Danny move in with their women, and Jernigan spends his days getting sloshed. His endless boozing is interrupted by a series of nightmarish incidents (Danny's girlfriend has a bad trip; a friend of Danny's shoots himself to death on the living-room sofa), and, at the same time, Jernigan's uncontrollable sense of irony turns into bitter sarcasmhe's a mean drunk, forever mocking the cultural illiteracy of those around him. Just when it seems he can go no lower, he splits for a trailer in New Hampshire, seeking total retreat and oblivion, but ends up in a treatment center, writing these frank confessions. Gates adeptly captures the disparity between what Jernigan says and what he means, what he's thinking and what actually happensand none of it's pretty.

Not as wildly lyrical or funny as A Fan's Notes, it's nevertheless a frighteningly believable portrait of a self-created hell.

Pub Date: June 4th, 1991
ISBN: 0-679-40237-3
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1991


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