Tom Connor’s Gift
David Allan Cates
Bangtail Press 2014
Reviewed by Bob Wake
The time frame of David Allan Cates’s bravura new novel, Tom Connor’s Gift, covers roughly three weeks that Janine McCarthy spends alone in a Montana cabin both evading and confronting her grief over her husband Mark’s recent cancer death. Janine, a 49-year-old doctor, is in a bad way, not even certain she wants to join her two grown children for Thanksgiving back at their family farm outside of Madison, Wisconsin. She’s soon drinking more than she should. Smoking cigarettes. Neglecting her appearance. The cluttered cabin begins to smell bad from piled garbage. She can’t muster the energy to name the small dog she’s acquired, simply christening him “Puppy.” Cates fashions a rich and elaborate narrative by recognizing that we are never really “alone” with grief. Memories loom large and become persistent companions. Reality takes on the heightened near-mystical quality of a waking dream.
Consider, for instance, Janine’s standoff with a bear snooping and foraging ever closer to the cabin:
I sit up in bed and turn my feet onto the floor and struggle with my boots. I suddenly remember the terrible, slow breathing of the bear through the door and remember shooting the pepper spray and it feels as if it were a dream. Did I really do that? Did I really have a bear right outside the door and still dare to open the door? Did I spray into the wind?
After all, we experienced the bear at the door too—at least we read about the bear in Janine’s own telling—and the pepper spray blowing back into Janine’s face causing acute distress to her eyes and throat. Pretty much, we’re convinced. But other times, Janine imagines seeing the bear outside in the shadows. On another occasion, the bear’s face appears at the cabin window and morphs into the smiling face of her dead husband. Despite her steely ER-tested nerves, Janine warily muses: “Do dream memories and other memories get stored in the same place? And if you forget which memory is a dream and which is a waking event, does that mean you’re insane?”
Deeply entwined with Janine’s story is the parallel narrative of the novel’s eponymous gift-giver, Tom Connor. They were briefly lovers when Janine was sixteen and Tom was twenty. Sorted into stacks on a table in the cabin are nearly one hundred and fifty letters she subsequently received from Connor—freelance journalist, frustrated novelist, drunkard—through the years. Janine doesn’t merely share many of Connor’s vivid letters with us, she struggles to contextualize them for us and for herself. The violence that Tom Connor is witness to in 1980s Central America—era of the CIA-funded Contras and the civil wars in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua—is unflinchingly recounted. (Cates’s work has never shied away from articulating the brutality at the heart of so much U.S. history, most notably in his powerful 2008 novel on the subject of slavery, Freeman Walker.)
Cates is a seasoned storyteller—this is his fifth novel—and Tom Connor’s Gift is awash in stories that are by turns raucous, hair-raising, and heartfelt. The author orchestrates a series of climactic chapters that range across memory and time with breathless page-turning dramatic force. While Cates has spoken of his new novel as completing a “homecoming trilogy” begun with his well-received 1992 debut Hunger in America and 2012’s award-winning Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home, each of these novels can be experienced on their own as satisfying individual works. Taken together, however, they represent a unique and eye-opening expression of epic American themes encompassing landscape and desire, love and loss, social justice and historical accountability.