‘This was the summer of ‘Hanky Panky’ and ‘Wild Thing.’ Not the ‘Wild Thing’ they have now, where the guy just talks in rhyme the whole way through, but the real ‘Wild Thing,’ where he thinks she moves him but he doesn’t know for sure’
Welcome to Jernigan, David Gates novel, his narrator Jernigan describes his accelerating descent from respectability to forced hospitalisation for alcoholism, from student during the summer of ‘Wild Thing’ and his biting irony, where he chooses to avoid the serious drug habit which others around succumbed to, to lost drunk pulling a gun on his son and lady friend. The story picks him up at the end of his marriage and the death of his wife, who when drunk, gets in her car naked and angry to leave her backyard party and reverses into the path of an oncoming lorry.
This book is one of my English lit targets for 2016
For one year life continues until he gets invited to a backyard party at Clarissa his son’s girlfriend’s house where he pairs up with Martha Peretsky Clarissa’s mother. He knows that this is not a smart idea , he and his son waking up in the same house with different women.
Jernigan wanders blindly into a relationship with a marginal woman living in an alternative economy, nothing is particularly thought through and Jernigan’s irony is still present:
‘But why not?’ she said. ‘Wouldn’t you like to get out of the money economy?’ ‘Wouldn’t I like to be twenty-four years old and have a twelve-inch dick,’ I said. I didn’t want to have to hear how seriously she took all this.’
As Jernigan’s anarchic relationship with Martha picks up his own destructuration deepens, at first amid a demanding sexual activity.
‘Embarrassing as hell even to think about it now, but we’d gotten into this business where she was pretending to be a one-woman harem, working permutations on her name to match what we were doing. Martha > Marty > Martina > Tina. Sullen Marty was the boy, meaning I was to turn her over; bossy Martina was the lesbian, meaning I was to go down on her; reluctant Tina meant straight missionary, her arms at her sides.’
Then amid their mutually uncontrolled drinking habit, based on home made hooch, he stops going into work regularly and is unceremoniously sacked. This is when he starts wondering where the food Martha serves him is coming from, leaning that she raises rabbits in the basement that she kills with a 22 pistol.
‘It was clear this morning that I had gotten myself involved with another crazy woman: this time, a crazy woman who shot rabbits in her basement. And who would shoot me if I now tried to extricate myself. Who would shoot my son. Shoot herself.’
Despite the alarm bells in his head he agrees to sell his house and move in with Martha as his son moves in with Clarissa.
As the pressure builds up on him, his inability to live with Martha coinciding with his son’s realisation of the instability and hard drug habit of Clarissa, Gates describes in realistic detail the life of an alcoholic, then increasing enormous quantities of gin he drinks, his disappearances, and his total unreliability.
Gates get’s the reader to have a certain sympathy for Jernigan and his life going out of control up to the final events before waking in the clinic left me with a profound sense of unease and sorrow as we no longer recognise Jernigan.
When he comes to in the clinic we sense something of the original Jernigan, but have little hope for him
‘So I do it their way. Mostly. I’ve found that my way doesn’t work: boy, do they love it whenever somebody comes out with that one in group. Then you see those sober little nods of the head meaning Better late than never. Fuck if I’ll go that far to keep them happy. And there’s other things I won’t do: one, see Danny; two, shave; and three, buy into this pretense that we’re all little first-name humans here going soul-to-soul. I’m So-and-so and I’m an alcoholic. I’m Such-and-such and I’m a drug addict. I’m Somebody Else and so forth and so on. But when it comes around to you, you have to give them something, if only name and spiritual disease. That’s the rule here. So what I’ve figured out is this. I stand up and say: Jernigan.’
First Published as “Jernigan” by Alfred A. Knopf in 1991