by David Gates
from the January 15, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

I‘ve read plenty of articles by David Gates, but I don’t think I’ve ever read any of his fiction, though he’s written plenty. His breakthrough came twenty-five years ago, when his debut Jernigan was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Since then he has published one other novel, Preston Falls, and two short story collections, The Wonders of the Invisible World and A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me. If that seems like a small output over a quarter century, that may be because Gates has been a prolific critic and journalist; he wrote about books and music for Newsweek until 2008.

He has published one other story in The New Yorker, “A Secret Station” in 2005. I’m glad to see he’s still going!

I look forward to seeing what you all think of the story, so join in the conversation below.

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By |2018-01-08T12:26:46-04:00January 8th, 2018|Categories: David Gates, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |10 Comments


  1. David January 9, 2018 at 8:50 am

    The story was ok, but nothing too special. When writers write about other creative people I often feel like there might be a different perspective that they have of these people that does not always translate clearly to the non-artist reader. I read the author interview and have two comments based on that. First, I was glad to hear him tell about how he put the first work he did on this story in a drawer because he was not sure where to go with it. I have criticized other stories here in the past for seeming to be written based on half an idea. Gates talks about avoiding the cliche of having Garver have an affair with Lois. That was the right call. A lesser writer would have written that version of the story anyway because they didn’t have a better idea and would then have justified it as a “fresh take” on a familiar idea or even tried to call it some sort of deconstruction or commentary on the cliche. All fancy talk for “I went for the cliche because I didn’t have any other ideas and didn’t have the discipline to put it in a drawer until I got some”. Points to Gates.
    The other interview-based comment is I am surprised by Gates’ explanation of Garver’s weed smoking with Ben. Gates says that Garver “envies Ben’s youthful promise and confidence and wants to ruin him.” I really don’t see this in the story at all. He only smokes with Ben twice. The first time is before Lois has mentioned not smoking with him and the second time is a long time later. Ben has already told him that the idea was to cut back on, not cut out smoking entirely. The idea that they should smoke is also one that Ben raises and Garver’s first response is to remind Ben that Lois would not approve. After Ben indicates he still wants to smoke anyway Garver agrees. Garver isn’t Ben’s father (and sounds like someone who was not a great father anyway), so it reads to me more that Garver is just going to let Ben do what he wants, not that there is any thought that this will lead to Ben’s ruin. If Gates wants to create the impression that this is part of what is going on in the scene, he needs to run it through the typewriter another time.

  2. Greg January 20, 2018 at 9:56 pm

    Thanks David for your above points on writing and how the writer successfully and unsuccessfully navigated them.

    I found the dialogue to be very clever….it felt so authentic!

    Lastly, this observation made me laugh out loud:

    “So he’d just finish a new one and stack it against the wall with the others. Maybe they’d be taken for intentional kitsch someday – he’d be the Jeff Koons of 2099.”

  3. Ken January 24, 2018 at 6:49 pm

    I found this pleasant and competent and that fact that those are the words I would use are probably indicative of why few people have commented on this story. At first a light social satire of transplanted urbanites/artists, it does develop into a sort of sad character study of the main character. The writing is pretty good and it flows but there’s not much resonance. I also would never think that the main character was trying to thwart Ben’s promise. That doesn’t at all come through in the story.

  4. William February 4, 2018 at 5:02 pm

    I liked this story better on second reading. I think it is a quality piece of craftsmanship and a nice depiction of an individual.

    Some of its subtle virtues are easy to overlook. One thing I like is its shorthand – no big backstory, no exhaustive explanations, no tedious anxiety-laced ruminations. Garver may not be at peace with himself, but he knows who he is and acts accordingly.

    He’s actually kind of hip as well:

    “He’d be the Jeff Koons of 2099.”

    “[She] was watching a Disney movie; the princess in this one had a bow and arrow and didn’t want to get married.”

    ‘“We used to sing that one, too.”’

    “So I guess I’m cut off.”
    “Paging Dr. Freud.”

    “Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king.”

    In the last sentence, where he sets out his canvases with care for Ben’s visit, we see that he still has artistic pride. He cares about what Ben thinks.

    “I don’t really know how to talk about pictures.”
    “Hey, I don’t know how to talk about music.”

    He shows his still-existing engagement with his art in this statement:

    “Sometimes he’d still make a mark that satisfied him.”

    And art as his religion:

    “Like a cabin at the church camp he’d gone to when he was twelve.”

    His desire for Ben’s respect easily morphs into jealousy, then he tries to sabotage him, just as he sabotaged his own career:

    “But was there really anything wrong in his thoughts? Well, that.”

    Lois recognizes this attitude:

    ‘“No, you wanted him to fuck up.”’

    But Garver has a true response:

    ‘“I hate to say this, but he’s going to find other friends.”’

    Probably something he has experienced himself. In fact, Ben is one of those friends/temptations.

    He was never a good dad, but he does have some sort of relationship with his daughter, who can be frank with him:

    ‘“You’re still kind of a dick.”’

    And she can be as flip and sarcastic as he is:

    ‘“Well, what in the world? Not again?”’

    When he comes to Texas, he finds himself immediately in an artistic wasteland:

    “On the far wall – it had to be there, right? – the fucking Picasso Don Quixote.”

    This one detail tells us all we need to know about Garver’s future. He can no longer paint, but also he cannot give up his painterly values. He’s stuck in a symbolic wasteland called Texas.

    Even with his own family, he has only one way to face this painful dilemma – alcohol:

    “By the time the family got home – his family, if you thought about it – he ought to be where he needed to be.”

    As a bonus, here is the title of a review of this story in a literary blog called “The Southern Bookman”:

    “David Gates’ short story “Texas” builds empathy for characters”

  5. Greg February 4, 2018 at 10:50 pm

    Thanks William for sharing your second thoughts on this story….and I found your wasteland conclusion of the title “Texas” to be invaluable….Bravo!

  6. Madwomanintheattic March 28, 2018 at 9:39 pm

    I am late to the party, but I want to thank William for giving Gates another try and finding richness. I would call Garver’s ending up in Texas an even stronger name than a wasteland; I think for him it is a level of hell, and hot too. Here is a failed artist, but one who has been successful enough to have an agent, a man whose frame of reference includes The New York Review of Books, who knows James Brown from Ellington, and who can’t go home again. His grandson’s room is a sad inversion of the studio he created for himself, and to the thought that his daughter cannot picture him living in such a town as Denton, he adds his own, “dying in such a place.” The masterful writing makes me love the cynicism, feel sorry for the man, and imagine what it would be like for me to end up in MY daughter’s house, in MY grandson’s narrow bed, in a town where it rains all the time and there are about 50 Evangelical churches.

  7. William March 29, 2018 at 8:24 am

    MWITA —

    Thanks for those observations. Hell is a good name for where Garver ends up, both physically and spiritually. I think your description of the impact of Gates’ “masterful writing” is exactly what he’s aiming to do.

  8. Eric March 30, 2018 at 1:52 am

    I think the point of the story was that Garver was not in fact a failed artist (Gates says he is a “B minus/C plus” one), but more of a failure as a human being, and certainly a father, and that his obsession with professional success was largely responsible for his personal failures. But, like Ken, I found the story somehow less poignant than I would have expected, mostly because I didn’t really feel any empathy for Garver. Lots of good writing here, but the story as a whole would have worked better had the author been able to make Garver into a compelling antihero, which he didn’t quite manage.

  9. William March 30, 2018 at 10:41 am

    Garver was a failed artist. He himself said he was doing stuff that someone else, I forget who, had done better, and that he (Garver) had himself done better 20 years ago.

    More important: Does every failed person have to be or “poignant” or inspire empathy, or be a “compelling antihero”? Does every Garver need to be a Willy Loman? Why isn’t it enough that Garver is a person such as he is? That in itself, to me, makes a good human portrait and a good short story. I think that’s what Gates is trying to do here, and what he tried to do in his story of a few years ago– “A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me”.

  10. Eric March 30, 2018 at 6:58 pm

    Well, yes, I do expect pretty much every short story to move me in some way. Not necessarily poignant, but if not poignant than amusing or thrilling or inspiring or cathartic, or at least “gripping” in some way. I’ll concede the existence of the category of stories that dazzle you with the beauty of their craftsmanship even without reaching you in a more primal way but I don’t think that Gates, while certainly a good writer, is really at that level.

    I imagine that this topic has been debated endlessly in literature classrooms for centuries. Not having a lot of classical education in that area, I have no idea what the consensus has turned out to be, or even if there is one.

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