Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home
David Allan Cates
Novelas Americanas 2012
Reviewed by Bob Wake
Among many things that novelist David Allan Cates does with unnerving skill in Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home is capture a quality we all recognize from dreams in which personalities and situations inexplicably shift and mutate with dizzying speed through layers of time and memory. The challenge for both author and reader is to bring shared meaning and coherence to jumbled time frames and private metaphors. Middle-aged Ben Armstrong, returning to his Midwestern boyhood home and finding himself roiled in disturbing fever dreams, begins to wonder with alarm, “Was there any other way home besides the strange way?”
His brother is turning into a fish. The landscape shimmers with Indian ghost villages sprung to life and pioneer trails bustling with holographic ancestors. Such are the CGI special-effects that the unconscious seems to have perfected long before Ovid’s Metamorphoses reminded us that “everything must change,” or Christopher Nolan’s Inception announced that, “When we’re asleep, we can do almost anything.” Cates’s bold narrative uncannily mirrors the seemingly arbitrary and at given moments terrifying attributes of dreaming with which we’re so intimately familiar. More ambitious still, almost crazy ambitious, the author wants to construct a collective unconscious for us that links Ben Armstrong’s personal shame, as well as our own, to some very large themes on the dark side of American history.
Ben Armstrong has returned home with tons more baggage than just a suitcase. It’s been 25 years since he fled the family farm burdened with guilt over a six-year affair with his brother’s wife, Sara. Compounding the sadness is the family tragedy that Ben and his brother Dan share: the death of their parents in an automobile accident when the siblings were children. Now 50 years old, Ben feels that he has “spent his entire adult life hiding from desire and regret.” Where Ben Armstrong’s experiences and hallucinations might differ from our own in the particulars, they rarely stray from universal psychic wounds like familial grief and romantic longing and loss.
The narrative obsessively circles and picks at formative events in Ben’s life with the persistence of a nagging conscience. “I’m on a journey of self-forgiveness,” he recognizes, although no one warns him it will involve blood-soaked history lessons and willful spirit-guides like his dead mother and an especially feisty dead grandmother. “Now hush and stop shaking,” his grandmother admonishes as she escorts Ben to the suddenly very real site of an impending Indian massacre. He will huddle for warmth among the corpses and phantoms of slain Native American families. “It was a place he knew,” we’re told, “but he couldn’t remember how.” The locale, a Tom Sawyeresque “cave on a bluff above the river,” is the same charged place where a teenage Ben will lose his virginity and where, later, he will regularly meet Sara for adulterous sexual encounters.
Never mentioned by name, the region encompassing the Armstrong family farm strongly resembles the sharp cliffs and forested valleys of southwestern Wisconsin’s Driftless Area (Cates, now living in Montana, is originally from Madison, and spent time on a family farm near Spring Green):
Later, he would remember how everything seemed normal until the car left the main road for the narrow blacktop, winding into the hills where the continental glacier hadn’t quite reached, where hundred-thousand-year-old gullies had become deep hollows between steep wooded ridges. The hollows turned and forked, turned and forked again, and the sky itself narrowed, and he lost track of direction. He drove through barely familiar lowlands riddled with springs and spongy with marsh, past abandoned farms, crumbled cabins, towns with a tavern, a gas station and a church, past rocky ridges casting shadows different from any he’d ever seen before.
The landscape—beautifully evoked throughout—literally “grounds” the novel and provides a sturdy platform for the Hieronymus Bosch-like follies and depravities that greet Ben Armstrong during his night journey toward grace and self-absolution. Also like Bosch, Cates’s material can sometimes feel hermetic and inscrutable. There’s a mercifully brief, memorably grotesque episode, for instance, when Ben reaches above his head and pulls from the air “a flying hunk of meat” which he proceeds to eat and which turns out to be his own unattached anus. Whether or not this is Cates’s representation of, say, the Ouroboros self-reflexivity symbol of a serpent devouring its own tail is, well, anyone’s guess (at least it’s my guess).
Does it really matter in a novel as inventive as this one that the weirdness occasionally erupts in a kind of homegrown psychedelic surrealism that’s as outrageous and funny as it is baffling? (For example, a roving news van from which steps a young female TV reporter with Tourette’s whose mic check consists of, “Testing, testing! Do me, do me! Do me like a doggy!”) Some reality-principle elements are perhaps left too tantalizingly vague, such as Ben’s job in “our nation’s capital,” where he’s an engineer working on a laser security system called “The Project.” The shadowy career seems more a product of an underdeveloped narrative thread than sinister ambiguity.
To be sure, this is a story with a lot on its mind and much of it is buried where impulses and childhood trauma take center stage in the guise of symbols and ciphers. Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home is David Allan Cates’s fourth novel (his 1992 debut, Hunger in America, was a New York Times Notable Book) and it showcases a writer with an assured style stretching his talent in directions that in all likelihood are as thrillingly uncharted for the author as for the many readers who will respond enthusiastically to this dream of a book.