Preston Falls

Peter Kurth reviews 'Preston Falls' by David Gates

Published January 14, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

| It isn't easy turning a run-of-the-mill story of yuppie disillusionment, degeneration and despair into a vivid, even riveting narrative that is also a stinging comment on our times, but David Gates has done it in "Preston Falls." Gates, a book critic for Newsweek and author of the well-received "Jernigan: A Novel," has a way of making the most ordinary dilemmas of the boomer generation seem startlingly significant and immediate. Following the latest in a series of cynical, dumbly predictable telephone squabbles with his estranged wife, Jean, the protagonist of "Preston Falls," to his intense surprise, suddenly bursts into tears.

"And then he begins to weep," writes Gates: "big glottal sobs he knows will turn to retching if he doesn't stop ... It doesn't escape him how weird this is: that he could work up a few sobs only by imagining her feeling bereft. If this is narcissism -- and what the fuck else could it be -- it's got a kink or two."

Kinky indeed are the mental twists of "Preston Falls'" fading, flabby, guitar-slamming hero, Doug Willis, the PR representative for a major American "sports beverage" in New York City -- a man stuck, like so many of his sex and generation, in a permanent longing for wildness and freedom. Up to his ears in debt, trapped in a sell-out job whose purpose he can no longer recall, Willis has two children to support in Westchester County and a ramshackle farmhouse way upstate, in that part of New York just south of Lake Champlain that ranks among the poorest rural areas in the country. The house in Preston Falls, permanently in need of repair, is Willis' last-ditch stake at independence, the symbol of mourning for his lost youth and missed opportunities and the ready-made setting for the nightmare fraying of his mind. Willis' wife hates the place, and his kids -- two of the most terrifyingly homogenized children that modern culture could produce -- are as indifferent to Preston Falls as they are to everything else except pop psychology, demonic music and political correctness.

"This book is so racist," says Willis' daughter, Melanie, when her aunt reads aloud to the family from "The Lord of the Rings."

"You used to love it," says her mother.

"Sure, when I was like eight."

Gates' ear for the banality and blandness of contemporary American diction is flawless, and he has a masterful way of shifting tone to suit the minds and personalities of his characters, in a narrative told entirely in the present tense. The novel is short on plot, but so are the lives of the Willises. It's no betrayal to say that everything ends badly -- half-badly, anyway, since there are no anchors in the lives of these people. When Jean Willis finally realizes that her marriage is over, she tells herself that it couldn't have ended any other way: "Though of course it could. But she'd done her best. Which is also completely and absolutely untrue." Willis, for his part, is headed straight for hell when we see him last. It ought to be depressing, but somehow it isn't. It's a fucking page-turner and shit, as Willis would say.

By Peter Kurth

Peter Kurth, a regular contributor to Salon Books, is the author of "Isadora: A Sensational Life." He lives in Burlington, Vt.

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