Peter Jernigan’s life is slipping out of control, and his only relief from all this reality – alcohol – is less effective by the day … Shot through with gin and irony, Jernigan is a funny, scary, mesmerising portrait of a man walking off the edge with his eyes wide open – wisecracking all the way.

David Gates' Jernigan was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1992 and is the latest addition to our Classics series. Steve Panton, in-house designer at Serpent’s Tail and designer of the Jernigan cover, talks us through his choices. 

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“It’s a God damn tract house in New Jersey,” I said. “What am I going to do with a scythe on a quarter-acre lawn?”

A well-manicured garden is an odd focus for such a dysfunctional family, but while Peter Jernigan’s life spirals out of control, he still insists on keeping his lawn in tip-top shape. For these three design ideas I focused on this obsession, ranging from ‘cleaner’ photos to a representation of a boozed up Jernigan passed out on the grass. I believe that Jernigan’s garden is the only thing he can actually control during the series of unfortunate events that plague his gin-fuelled catastrophe of a life.

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‘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.’

Just when something starts to look up for Jernigan in the form of a lover – who happens to be his son’s girlfriend’s mother, Martha – he finds out that, like him, she might not be completely ‘all there’. In her basement she has a rabbit farm, and harvests dinner regularly from ‘Bunny Hell’. And during the depraved events of Jernigan’s escapades he has some traumatic run-ins with ‘Bunny Hell’.

I particularly liked the idea of depicting a rabbit on the cover with the intention of the rabbit being a metaphorical representation of Jernigan himself. Like the caged rabbits, he is trapped in his own life, manipulated by drugs and alcohol. These three covers range from a snow-covered corpse (the cold is a significant feature in the novel), to an extreme close up of a shocked rabbit, to my personal favourite: though the rabbit appears to be free, its shadow shows it caught by its captor.

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‘[I] ... dragged the chair over close to the stove and sat down, still in my coat. What I would do was wait until the living room was entirely warm and welcoming: it would be easier explaining to Danny why it was a bad idea to kill himself if we weren’t both sitting huddled in our coats and blowing on our hands.’

Whilst Jernigan’s garden acts as a constant form of order, his chair offers comfort in his cold, isolated world, whilst also being a centrepiece in some of his most dramatic moments. This cover shows a representation of his chair amidst the darkness of the living room in which Jernigan spends his evenings.

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“... I was just in your neighborhood and I thought I’d give you a jingle to see if you were around. But I guess you’re not and”—I waited a few seconds for her to pick up the phone in case she was there listening, trying to decide about me. “Oh well. Another time. Hope you’re well, ta ta, whatever, I don’t know. Well, enough of this. Before I descend into total incoherence. ’Bye now.”

One of the predominant themes in the book is coldness, both physical and emotional. Jernigan can never fully empathise with either his son, Martha, or her daughter. The majority of the novel takes place during the Christmas season and so I created a lot of cover alternatives focusing on a single isolated figure amongst a snowy, cold landscape.

This cover focuses on Jernigan’s trip into New York City to visit a friend. This photo felt very powerful to me; being able to show such a busy city in such an empty way enhances the sense of Jernigan’s isolation.

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‘So I started down through where I knew the road had to be, right up over my knees in all that God damn snow. I could feel it going down into my shoes.’

The final cover shows Jernigan standing in the snow. Despite the constant cold, often neither Jernigan nor his son have suitable clothing. This cover shows his isolation as a character and depicts his ill-prepared nature, showing the snow creeping into his shoes.

When brainstorming for visuals it was hard to ignore Jernigan’s constant ally through the turmoil of his life, gin. Though we wanted the visual to represent him as a sad, dark-humoured character, not just a drunk, the title typography takes inspiration from that of American alcohol labels, so in a way, drink has become a part of his being on our jacket.

More from me on designing the Serpent’s Tail classics

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