Posts Tagged 'David Allan Cates'

The Mysterious Location of Kyrgyzstan

The Mysterious Location of Kyrgyzstan
David Allan Cates
Satellite Press 2016

Reviewed by Bob Wake

CatesPoemsDavid Allan Cates, the author of five novels (most recently the award-winning Tom Connor’s Gift), has not until now published a collection of his poetry. The assured voice that emerges from the nineteen poems in The Mysterious Location of Kyrgyzstan shares a sensibility that admirers of his fiction will recognize: politically engaged, erotically charged, and remarkably fluid in shifting between closely observed naturalism (especially of Central America, where Cates does medical aid work) and dreamlike surrealism.

If a lovesick Claude Monet were inspired to peel off his paint smock and dive naked into his beloved water lilies, he might sound something like the besotted narrator of Cates’s poem, “You Could Have Had Me”: “Just so you know, I’ve taken to floating on the fish pond at night / My cock a lily // Chest an empty / Turtle shell without you.” The playfulness of “You Could Have Had Me” comes at a price. There is regret that stings (“The echoing howl of everything I did and everything / I didn’t do”) and an immeasurable sadness (“Then I close my eyes and smell precious / Failure, / Feel on my skin the electric rain / Of bewilderment”).

Love in a Cates poem can be life and death. In “The Purpose of Kissing,” sensuality has the explosive charge of a suicide-bomb trigger:

Think of it like this: lovers
hold tiny detonation devices
on their tongues, hot invisible
wires attached to distant charges
strategically placed.

Real-world violence is often right around the corner in Cates’s work. In the poem “San Pedro Sula,” for instance, “Nothing says good morning / like gunshots at dawn, and she, her feet in snow, / steps past pine and hemlock toward a cold car / she hopes will start.” To situate love honestly in the historical moment is to recognize both our fragile impermanence and our connectedness to landscapes alive with ghosts: “Some / were important and others weren’t / and were slaughtered / because they lived on the other side of the river / or down in the valley … Sometimes / they loved— / did I mention that?—like we do” (“You and Me and the Dead”).

It is David Allan Cates’s novelistic eye for detail and the sinister anecdote that breathes so much life into the opening two stanzas of a poem like “What with Light We Might Imagine”:

Before dawn, you greet hotel maids
chatting music, step around dog shit
on the clean cobbled sidewalk past garbage
trucks and taxis in the cold. After
a long night of righteous missiles
over the holy land, the echo of ¡puta
madre! has dissolved down the block
and the fairy glow of streetlights guides
you toward a paling sky, Cinco de Mayo
and coffee.

Still squinting from the Santa Martha
bus, you walk into the shade past armed
guards on broken chairs and the same
one who blocked your way to leave that first
afternoon, said it’s too late, you’ll have to stay
the night inside. Remember the dark
in your throat, the sudden glint in his eye,
a prison joke. Ha-ha.

The Mysterious Location of Kyrgyzstan is an ambitious all-digital project (available in Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iBooks, and Smashwords editions) from Satellite Press. Filmmakers were commissioned by the Satellite Collective to create videos using audio of Cates reading. Two online videos have appeared so far, the title poem (by filmmakers Tim van der Meer and Sietske van der Veen) and the poem “Good Luck” (by filmmaker Kate MacDonald).


Tom Connor’s Gift

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.)

David Allan Cates. Photo: Bangtail Press.

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.

cbr 20 / summer 2013

cbr

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cbr 20 / summer 2013

The Burning Monk
A short story
Dwight Allen

Yellow Sky
A short story
Rod Clark
Illustrations by Weshoyot Alvitre

And If It Be Mean
A short story
Norma Gay Prewett

Ghosts in the Library
A short story
Jack Lehman

Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home
An excerpt
David Allan Cates

The Tiger’s Wedding
An excerpt
James Dante

Telling Time
An excerpt
Lee Jing-Jing

Bad Axe
An excerpt
Ann Morrison

The Silent Witness
An excerpt
Steven Salmon

Ty-D-Bol Blue
A short story
Bob Wake

Polyester
A short story
August McGinnity-Wake

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Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home

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.

David Allan Cates

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.


Mudstone

Recall: A Short Story

Walden West and the Twilight of Transcendentalism

Weiskopfs Rising

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Caffeine & Other Stories by Bob Wake

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