5 out of 5 stars
Cut to the Chase:
A dark portrait of suburban life gone awry, Jernigan’s misery is due in equal parts to bad luck/unfortunate circumstance as well as chronically bad life choices on his part. Jernigan is self-deprecating, yet kind of a bully; he’s intelligent but completely underutilized; he’s psychologically damaged but also simultaneously aware and oblivious in a way that’s hard not to identify with. Though Jernigan is plagued with specific psychoses and vices (his bunny-killing lover, alcoholism), there is an everyman quality about him and his circumstances where you can’t help but relate to him, and even root for him. Both depressing and hilarious, this is a brilliant novel that is compulsively readable.
Jernigan is a 40 year old man who finds that, within the same year, he’s lost his father (an artist who dies in debt, instead of with the inheritance they had half-expected but which was never there), his wife (who dies in one of those “you recognize it could’ve been you” situations, if you were as unlucky as Jernigan is), his job (one he didn’t want and yet stayed at for 10 years nonetheless) and maybe his self-respect/sanity (he takes up with a woman who kills bunnies and may be crazy, who also happens to be the mother of his son’s girlfriend; he worries whether he can say the general parenting type of things in view of his past drug use and current alcoholism). Jernigan goes through life with a scarily detached complacency where he knows things are wrong, and becoming gradually more and more wrong, and where he keeps telling himself to fix it, do something, anything…
There’s a lot of great, very dry, humor sprinkled throughout. Like the characters Gates created in Wonders of the Invisible World, Jernigan is a guy whose life has gone off the track and who is extraordinarily self-reflective and self-deprecating about it all. Here’s a taste of his voice:
“But Jernigan is no life-changer. Though willing enough to lie back and let it happen. So I ended up simply resolving to limit things to maybe a beer once in a while but really just a beer, and to do better with the little daily stuff. A smile of greeting, a thank you after a meal – oh believe me, I know how Reader’s Digesty this all sounds – and really listening to what loved ones are saying instead of finding ways to let them know that you wish they’d leave you the fuck alone… … I was going to be part of this household again: take my turn doing dishes and feeding the bunnies. Death chamber duty too…”
However, unlike the characters in Wonders, Jernigan seems to have more things that happen to him, rather than because of him. I’m reminded of the movie Adaptation where the narrator is humorous, satirical, and constantly analyzing and over-analyzing rather than doing. Jernigan is more of a screw-up than Kauffman in Adaptation, however, and therefore the humor is much darker and more fierce here.
The good thing is that Gates, through Jernigan, is a very good, articulate observer of the world. At one point, when Jernigan is trying to find out more about the neighborhood, he approaches a woman walking a baby and asks whether the neighborhood is safe:
“She looked over her shoulder, then said, more quietly, ‘You mean is it going black? I would say not at all.’
It had taken, what, ten seconds to find the ugly place in her? Probably she was nice on the whole and this was just something that was being discussed around here a lot. So now I would have to manage some way of not embarrassing her for having said a racist thing without being complicit myself.”
The only caveat I’ll give is that the novel sometimes requires you to be a patient reader — the sometimes stream-of-consciousness, super-cerebral-meta-conscious-unconscious passages aren’t for everyone (despite how well written they are), and Jernigan is such a screw-up that you’ll sometimes be a bit exasperated with him (i.e. being drunk while talking to the kids about drugs)
What makes Jernigan ultimately worth the read however, is how familiar he’ll seem, despite the fact that he’s a bit of a jerk. Although many of the events seem to be happening to him, the people and situations are drawn so realistically, you’ll find yourself relating to him, despite not always liking him. He’s a fluid character, and despite the alcoholism and the emotional numbness, you want to maybe not exactly like him, but at least to understand and sympathize with him. You recognize enough everyman in Jernigan to be a little scared and also thankful that at least you’re not him.
Comparisons to Other Authors:
I will admit that reading Jernigan was at times almost like a Woolf/Faulkner/Beckett combo with acid/alcohol. I’ve heard other people say that Jernigan is a grown up Holden Caulfield… which I think is a bit polarizing, as many of us either loved or hated that novel when it was assigned in school (as someone who liked JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, I’d like to think that Holden hung onto a bit more of his innocence/optimism than this). I think Jernigan’s a much more depressed, alcoholic Miles Roby (from Empire Falls by Richard Russo) or what Bone (from Russell Banks’ Rule of the Bone) might be like if he actually grew up and had children.