If I only had one word to describe David Gates‘s novel Jernigan (1992), that word would be sour. With the amount of alcohol consumed Peter Jernigan has to be that literary beast the unreliable narrator, but at the end we find there’s even more to it than that. Still makes for a compulsive read though, and I might just read it again (it’s relatively short, 238 pages) some time. Naturally he’s an anti-hero, albeit with a nicely sardonic sense of humour and self-knowledge – “I had my usual thoughts about everything being debased” – when he’s not being a complete arsehole; not so much a bad man as one circumstances and life choices have made less than good most of the time. At least he isn’t physically violent.
Jernigan is a tale of the American suburbs. It tells of a massive bender, its pre-history and its consequences. After a family tragedy, and engineered by his somewhat problem teenage son and his even more damaged girlfriend, Peter Jernigan moves in with her mum, Martha. Who has a secret that blows up in her – in all their – faces one nightmare Christmas Eve, which sends him off on a desperate lone drunken drive to a remote cabin in a snow storm, said adventure proving near fatal. Before he sets out, Martha has offered:
‘You believed exactly what you wanted to believe, Peter,’ she said. ‘Did you actually think there were all these nice wholesome families just ready and waiting for you to come along? You’re a drunk whose drunk wife killed herself. And you want to know something really pathetic? You looked good to me.’
Cheerful, eh? Somewhere in it all there had been some good intentions – and actions – on both sides, a dab of compassion here and there. A previous argument, after he’s lost his job:
‘Peter, my only vision was that whatever you did you might get some enjoyment out of your life for a change. I should’ve – I mean, everything I knew was literally screaming that you were incapable of any sort of joy whatever.’
Should I say figuratively? Better not. ‘A trenchant analysis,’ I said.
‘Fuck you too.’
‘Trenchanter and trenchanter,’ I said. ‘Repartee City around here this morning.’
Ah, that job. Taken as a short-term measure after graduation and an interesting student existence all those years ago, and challenged about it by his father, an artist, the last time he saw him before his death, to:
… tell me what the hell you’re doing as an assistant vice shoeshine boy at some outfit that’s doing its bit to help squeeze the working man out of New York City. Not to mention the painting man.’
‘The money is fine … it beats junior professor money.’
OK, his father, who is interesting:
I mean, he was Francis Jernigan and everything, but the real money got made off of stuff he’d let go for a couple of thousand dollars in like 1952. My mother split in 1956, he boozed from then until ’64 or ’65 … You know, what can I say? By then it was all Andy Warhol or something …
Peter makes a sort of pilgrimage with his son to the deeply rural location where his father had lived (and died in a fire). His alcoholic lack of self-worth is relentless:
It amounted to a moral failing not to have learned the names of trees. It amounted to a moral failing, too, that this landscape looked dead and tattered to me, instead of sternly beautiful.
At a certain point he puts a bullet through the webbing between his own thumb and index finger. He tells us:
That’s Jernigan all over: first you swallow a bunch of drugstore anodynes and then you want to feel something and then you bitch and moan because it hurts.
Jernigan is – for all its pain and misery – a sustained, unrelenting and compulsively readable literary tour de force. I have barely scratched the surface of its characters or hinted at the intriguing cultural breadth of references. It is only in the last couple of pages that the occasion of its composition – of how and why Jernigan is writing it – is revealed, involving a small act of rebellion that one cannot help but acknowledge and semi-reluctantly cheer; I’m not giving anything away. But so absorbing was Jernigan to me that that ending was an inducement to start all over again.
Where Richard Yates‘ Revolutionary Road documented the sterility of the ’50s American suburbs and signalled the necessity, the inevitability, of the social changes of the ’60s, David Gates‘ Jernigan inhabits the toxicity of the same locales in the decades following on after, as Neil Young so eloquently put it, the goldrush.
I may or may not thank David Gates for bringing Wallace Stevens’ long and at first glance difficult though intriguingly titled poem The comedian as the letter C to my attention, and I’ll willingly admit to never having heard of the country singer Webb Peirce, mention of whose music crops up every now and them. Don’t let this put you off:
Words and music
closer to home
Conjunctions of the planets in the night sky excite astronomers almost as much as astrologists (or vice versa), but the vagaries of the calendar meant the three premier Stony open mics all happened within the space of 5 days. Warning: may contain in-jokes.
And now a diversionary dip into cultural archaeology. I was going to say I was going to do a Friends on this one, you know, the way they gave each episode a title that started either ‘The one where …’ or ‘The one when …’ or ‘The one with …’ but I remembered that maybe that wasn’t necessarily the provenance. It was a device that Bobbie Ann Mason had used in her memorable In country novel of 1985, about a Vietnam vet travelling across the US to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, when they were talking about episodes of (was it?) M.A.S.H. (There are always some books you live to regret including in the charity shop cull, aren’t there?). And it had occurred to me then, when I’d first noticed what they were doing with the Friends episode titles, whether someone involved in Friends had read In country and nearly a decade later thought Yea, let’s go with that. (Did I mention it’s a powerful novel?) I’d like to think so, rather than the more mundane explanation that that’s just the way people talk about show episodes anyway; though kudos for adopting it anyway. It’s just that I like to see the connections.
So, AORTAS – collage ©Dan Plews – mostly the usual suspects (no bad thing), but distinguished by being (at greater length than the classic form): the one when the dog disgraced itself; the one when we had fun at the back injecting the word ‘chainsaw’ into song titles (“For the times, they are a chainsaw”); the one where Stephen Hobbs performed a story about a parsnip (and people listened).
Scribal Gathering: the one when Jonathan was stuck on the M25 and Mark had to kick things off totally acoustically; the one when both members of the Straw Horses managed to be in the house at the same time (exquisite and immaculate harmonies); the one when Ian Freemantle returned to fight the good fight of the working men of England, rhythmically and righteously in his own distinctive way; the one when Stephen Hobbs explained why for him August is the cruellest month and moaned about not getting a mention lately here on Lillabullero (but I’m not falling for that one, oh no) (though the temptation to spell his name wrong is great); the one that finished with the accomplished James Hollingsworth delivered a mesmerising and rousing paen to Thomas More’s Utopia (another 400th anniversary of 2016) aided by a tape delay (or was it just a big echo) on his guitar. And that wasn’t all; yes, it was a good one.
The Antipoet at Vaultage was always going to be interesting. Fully costumed bassman Ian striding down the High Street double bass in hand in his high-heeled platforms evoked a cheer from some builders on tour before he’d even reached the Vaults. “We’ve done these all better,” said a ‘slightly tipsy’ Paul Eccentric (I’m quoting the Antipoet management here) through the giggles at one stage. Not exactly entirely their usual crowd but they had a good time – “an audience you want to take home with you” (ibid) as did we. Raucous, anarchic, with a skillful element of crowd control on display. Ian in full gimp mask for the start of Sign of the times, which must have been hot. Stony Bard Vanessa Horton stood in for the ailing Fay Roberts (archivists please note – get well soon, ma’am), with her own salty set, then adding a fresh contribution and slant to the annals of the Antipoet’s I like girls. Hot and knackered I’m afraid I left early – apologies to those performing after the Lads.