"The Wonders of the Invisible World"

These brooding, crushingly accurate stories are as forgiving as they come.

Published June 30, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

You might want to think twice before inviting David Gates into your life -- he's going to rifle through your medicine cabinet, pop the tape into your VCR, even paw through the top drawer where you cache your weed, and tell everything he knows. He's the kind of writer who gets between his characters and their favorite cereal (Count Chocula). Minutiae are his prima materia.

But the sadness and vacancy they describe is anything but small-scale. In his affecting short-story collection "The Wonders of the Invisible World," Gates, the author of the dark, alcohol-soaked suburban tragedies "Jernigan" and "Preston Falls," slyly captures the brooding disconnect of an overeducated, underoccupied American middle class. He builds his characters via crushingly accurate details: their bedside massage oil from the Gap, Tropicana HomeStyle O.J., "What Would Jesus Do" bracelets. For the most part, they are couples with two homes but barely one happiness between them. Plot isn't exactly the point. It's his characters' condition -- playful and despairing at precisely the same time -- that makes them so transfixing.

What Gates is best at (and there's much to admire) is that mix of levity and rawness. In "The Intruder," a bitchy young man named James moves in with Finn, an older, gay documentary filmmaker, only to find himself startled at the brutality of Finn's most famous work, a movie about children's games: "'This is amazing,' James said. 'How did you get this to be so scary?' Finn dropped into his Zen pedagogical manner. 'Just by looking at it.'"

It's a thin cover for Gates' own method. But it's James' rejoinder that truly distills what makes Gates such a captivating storyteller. "James looked back at the frozen image. 'I wonder how you look at me,' he said. 'I'd like to be looked at with kindness.'" Which is to say: Don't worry about the Count Chocula. As closely as Gates shadows his characters, he's as forgiving as they come.

Often, as in "The Bad Thing" or "The Crazy Thought," the central occupation of the characters is evasion -- how not to talk about their marriage, their affection for the liquor cabinet, the "stupid affairs" they can't seem to shake. This aspect of his stories can give them a sense of indirection, so be prepared for some goofy pre-dinner pot smoking ("Saturn") and ramblings about the background music in restaurants ("Wonders of the Invisible World"). As in the novels of Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis, pop culture is usually the characters' only consolation. When the young day-care worker in "Beating" can't keep her husband sober enough for conversation, she rents Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" for the umpteenth time so that she can "really lose it when all the stuff in the castle goes back to being real."

In Gates' stories, those emotional crescendos, the real transformations, seem always to take place after the last page, if at all. The one real exception is "Star Baby," the collection's strongest and most touching piece. Billy, a 32-year-old gay man (Gates, for the record, is straight), returns to his hometown in Albany to care for his sister's young son Deke while she goes through detox. The story watches him fake his way into fatherhood, from trips to CVS for the kid's Halloween costume to Sunday sermons at the Methodist Church. "They've had pasta the last three nights. Deke would eat it definitely, and Billy doesn't care," Gates writes. "If they want variety, they can always get a different Paul Newman sauce."

Like most of Gates' creations, Billy has only a tenuous relationship to maturity. At the end, the pair drive toward Boston to clean his sister's apartment of drugs in preparation for her return. Deke impulsively opens the passenger-side door and threatens to leap onto the highway -- he doesn't want his mom back, he wants to be with Billy. Parenthood has ambushed his uncle, and all Gates' tiny details add up to one gripping recognition:

Billy's heart begins to slow down. He looks over at Deke. The pale skin, through which a blue vein shows at his temple. The soft hair that should've been trimmed weeks ago. The ragged, scuffed sneakers Billy's been meaning to replace. So much need, and nobody else to help. He takes a deep breath, lets it out. "Well?" he says. "I'm here, right? I'm not going anywhere."

By Austin Bunn

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