cover image Preston Falls

Preston Falls

David Gates. Alfred A. Knopf, $25 (384pp) ISBN 978-0-679-43667-6

A visceral journey to the dark side of suburban masculinity and parenthood, Gates's second novel (after Jernigan) opens as Jean and Doug Willis, a couple whose marriage is disintegrating, attempt to spend Labor Day weekend at their farmhouse in the upstate New York town of Preston Falls. Chafing against the boredom of his life in workaday Westchester County, Willis--as Doug is called--has slipped into a fugue of sardonic humor and macho posturing. Hoping that a two-month hiatus from both his family and his job as the chief PR flack for a beverage company will assuage his unhappiness, Willis plans to renovate the farmhouse, practice on his vintage guitar, mingle with the roughneck locals and plow through the novels of Dickens. As Willis grows more edgy and erratic, evincing shades of the mental illness that, it is revealed later, destroyed his own father, Jean goes camping with the kids--Roger, nine, and Melanie, 12--only to have Willis show up at their campsite with a gun, provoke an altercation with a park ranger and spend the weekend in jail. Gates tightens the screws on the mid-life desperation of both Jean and Willis, adroitly capturing the bewilderment of their kids, as Willis's situation grows ever worse. Bailed out by a bohemian lawyer who agrees to lower his legal fees if Willis agrees to run drugs between New York and Vermont, Willis slips into a fog of cocaine-induced paranoia and disappears, leaving Jean, aided by her benign but flaky sister, to cope with the children, and to search for Willis with as much grit and courage as she can muster. Alternating points of view between Jean and Willis, Gates chronicles the detritus of their marriage in minute detail, in a colloquial, flattened out, present-tense voice. While reinforcing the humdrum aspects of their lives, this narrative strategy only makes the drama of their marriage's decline all that more unrelentingly downbeat. When Willis materializes in his Westchester kitchen at the novel's end, he confesses to Jean, ""Search me what the fuck it was about."" Although Gates is a masterful chronicler of the dynamics of a family meltdown, the reader is likely to echo Willis's declaration of ignorance. (Jan.)