Good day to you, Story366! I write this entry in the wee hours of the morning from a hotel in downtown Kansas City, where I’m spending the weekend with the fam. We have a full day planned for later—art museum, zoo, some good barbecue—so I just read from David Gates’ book in the bathroom while my family slept out here in the room. Now I’m sitting out here in the dark, bringing you today’s post.
Should I mention the Olympics? Briefly, as we have two weeks—they’re not going anywhere. I just posted on FB about one realization I’ve had: Had the Games been given to Chicago, way back when they weren’t, today, the entire summer, and beyond, would have been really, really different for your Story366 blogger. Had the games been in Chicago, I would have spent yesterday inside some brand-new sports complex along Lake Michigan, selling this and that up and down the aisles. Maybe it would be beer—would they sell beer at the Olympic Opening Ceremony?—or maybe it would be little country flags. A friend of mine suggested bullet-proof vests (which was too true to be funny). Whatever it would have been, it would have been something. Maybe I’d even get to wear one of those suits that the athletes wore as they marched into the stadium—I call the look “yacht club tour guide,” while Karen came up with “cruise director.” Oh, those lucky super-athletes.
Back to David Gates. I read a few stories from his 2015 collection A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me, out from Knopf. Even on the toilet seat (where I’ll read some Lee Smith at about the same time tomorrow), I enjoyed reading Gates’ work, which I’ve read before, here and there, in the top literary and slick magazines that print stories. He’s also written three novels, which I haven’t read, but should. I like everything I’ve ever read by Gates, but am settling on the title story from this collection to write about, the last story in the book, and quite the dandy.
“A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me” is about these bluegrass musicians from New York, more or less, and their relationship over a few decades. The protagonist, who is unnamed, tells the story as an old man, though the story starts when he’s barely out of high school. The story describes his relationship with a man named Paul Thompson, who is pretty well known mandolin player in the New York-area bluegrass scene. The first detail we get is how the two men meet—at a battle of the bluegrass bands—leading them to hang out, play together, and become friends. If I were teaching this story in a class—and I might some day—I’d call this a first peripheral story, though it’s close, as the story’s obviously as much about the narrator as it is about Paul (which would be more subtle in a true first-peripheral story).
The story spans years, showing how the narrator transforms from that teenager in a ragtag band to an adult playing bluegrass on the side. He goes to college, goes to grad school, marries Diane (one of his TAs), and gets a teaching job up in Vermont, where he buys a small farm. He plays gigs with Paul along the way, sometimes joining with him in a band, sometimes playing duets. Every year, our hero hosts a weekend bluegrass festival at the farm, all their musician friends making the trip, playing music and spending time together in a serene setting.
Relationships play heavily into “A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me,” as our narrator eventually loses Diane (an affair with another student), but soon finds another, Janna, who is the opposite of Diane in a lot of ways (we find out, eventually, that she can’t stand bluegrass, which is funny when it’s revealed). The story highlights the moments when Paul comes to visit, when he and Paul get together. It’s a story about friendship, but also a story about choices, how some people choose to live, or to not live.
I won’t go any further into the plot, but will note that the relationships are tested in a big way for the third act. This test slows down the story a great deal, and instead of bluegrass get-togethers, it gives Gates the opportunity to really expose his characters, see these hapless and happy-go-lucky minstrels face a concentrated problem, their true persons revealed. I enjoyed reading the decades-long montage of run-ins with Paul. The story got even better when we saw them at their best, at their worst.
David Gates is a top-notch story writer, a longtime journalist who started writing fiction and is now a fiction professor up at Montana. The first line from the jacket flap to A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me calls him an heir to Carver and Cheever, which I can see, especially the later works by both. Gates’ characters, in the stories I read, are transplanted in western New England, are old enough to survive (or not) some infidelity, and are trying to find happiness, with someone new, perhaps their last go. I’ve admired Gates’ work for some time and now that I’ve sat down with one of his books, that admiration has only grown.