Preston Falls tells the straightforward tale of Doug Willis, a middle-class, suburban New Yorker whose dreams are in tatters. The book traces the course of his mid-life crisis as he takes time out from his job, ostensibly to work on renovating his upstate country cottage in Preston Falls, but in practice disintegrating in a blizzard of displaced machismo, Dickens and drugs. We meet Willis on the cusp, and watch him go over it. The book is split into four sections. The first describes Willis and his wife Jean and kids, Mel and Roger, arriving at Preston Falls for a long weekend, which goes rapidly sour. The second charts the phases of Willis' disintegration as he's left alone, finding himself sucked into his evil's lawyers games, reading Dickens, trying to re-ignite a spark of his guitar playing youth. The third section turns the narrative around, presenting the consequences of Willis' actions from Jean's point of view as she struggles to deal with the children, and the last is a kind of coda.
Gates' prose has a rat-a-tat-tat effectiveness. He writes primarily in the present tense, using the past for the book's numerous flashbacks. This helps to add urgency to the drama, as though opening up the possibilities of every action: these are not cast in the stone, every decision could have been another, and the reader seems to feel Willis bringing his fate down upon himself with a relentless but always avoidable stupidity, or fatalism. This doesn't make him in any way sympathetic. Rather the author employs his surgical prose to pick at every failing of his book's hero, in much the same way as the hero uses every one of his failings to contribute to his demise. It's a theatre of cruelty, wherein Willis is the object of the gods' derision, but where his feeble neglect of his paternal duties denudes him of any kind of tragic dignity.
You might say this book was firmly in Updike territory. It's twenty years since I read Updike and the taste his work leaves in my mouth is one of wanting to have it both ways. Portray the child in the man, whilst in some way converting the retreat to childhood into a kind of Romantic voyage. Gates, it seems to me, is debunking any notion of a Romantic journey. It's kind of what we think is going to happen when Willis is left alone in the wilds of Preston Falls, and appears to be what he's looking for, but reality is harsher than he's ready for. Once again, there's the grand North American tension between the lure of nature's wilds and civilisation's charms, but there's no doubt where Gates positions his characters on this spectrum in the end: once you've sold your soul to the home-comfort devil there's not much hope of getting it back again.
Further down the line from Updike, the book brings to mind two films. One is Herzog's Grizzly Man, where Treadwell thinks he can walk with the bears but he can't; and the other is Kaufman's recent Synechdoche, another work that spins a thread between New York and its upstate neighbours, watching a man go to pieces as he tries to make sense of the vast distance between these closely linked geographic spaces. The US and its arts will always be immersed in the desperate tension between the material comfort it has afforded its citizens (or at least those born on the right side of the tracks) and the spiritual cost that seems to be the price they have to pay for that material comfort. It's an important theme, and Preston Falls isn't scared to get down and dirty with it.