David Allan Cates writes about people in extremes.
“You put a character out there on the edge, and we will all watch. You put a character up on a tightrope, and we’re all going to pay attention,” the novelist and Missoula resident said.
His new book, “Tom Connor’s Gift,” is no different. Just reference the paranthesized subtitle, “(Mad grief, mad love, and a crooked road home.)”
The protagonist is a doctor who’s walked off her shift in a Wisconsin emergency room and retreated to a remote cabin. Her husband has recently died, her children have grown and moved to far-flung places in the world.
In her exile, she reads through a stack of letters sent to her by Tom Connor, with whom she’d run away from home at age 16 – a fling that ended when he tried to commit suicide.
“Then he went down to Central America and she went back to Chicago and he began to write her letters over the course of the next 15 years or so,” Cates said.
While the protagonist has had the struggles of a focused life – diligently studying, marrying young and working hard – Connor’s has been further on the edge, living in Central America in the troubled 1980s. His dispatches graphically detail both the political situations he’s ensnared in and his sex life.
“He reveals himself in ways that we’re not used to people revealing themselves to us,” Cates said, openly discussing big questions of suffering, death and uncertainty.
The novel cuts between the protagonist’s first-person chapters and Connor’s letters, both of which Cates said are “not timid voices” but “full-on blasts” relayed in large, sprawling paragraphs.
“Her way of talking about the world and talking about herself is the way that somebody who’s been stunned by grief might talk. She’s reaching for the irrational. She’s trying to break out of the shell of understandability and step into something beyond that.”
While the protagonist thought Connor’s letters were bizarre at the time she received them, in her state of mourning they aid her with reconciling the troubles in her own life and finding her way back to sanity.
“In a big picture way, it’s about the way we’re not always able to understand the help people are giving to us when they’re giving it to us. We’re not able to appreciate it. Afterward we can look back and we can realize, oh my what a gift that person gave me,” Cates said.
Cates began writing “Tom Connor’s Gift,” his fifth novel, five years ago. The first chapter, all from the widow’s perspective, was written over the course of a week at a cabin in the Sun River area.
He knew he was onto something, but it presented a narrative problem. A widow, alone in a Midwestern cabin that’s occasionally menaced by a bear, doesn’t have much momentum on its own.
He returned to “Tom Connor’s Gift” about a year ago to complete it, and it is set to publish from Bozeman’s Bangtail Press on Oct. 15.
During that interlude, Cates wrote a lot of poetry and rewrote and self-published “Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home.” The novel won a gold medal for best regional fiction at the 2013 Independent Publisher Book Awards.
He was also busy with work for Missoula Medical Aid. The agency, where he is executive director, has taken him to rural communities in Central America to provide health care for the past 15 some years.
Indeed, Cates first traveled south in the late 1970s when he was 20, hitchhiking down the isthmus to learn another language first-hand.
After graduating college from UM, he and his wife moved onto a coffee plantation where he could afford to hone his craft.
“I knew I could write and read if I lived cheaply, and I knew I could live cheaply in Central America,” he said.
Through the ’80s and ’90s he kept returning, at one point playing basketball for a team in Costa Rica. During those travels, he witnessed first-hand the political upheavals and violence that his character reports on.
He said his “nervous system resonated completely” with Central America since his first trip – particularly the way that life messily occurs out in the open, in streets filled with color, smells and an air of tolerance.
“There’s a lot of affection between people. I learned in Central America a way of being in the world and passing time and not being in a hurry and understanding we have this moment now,” he said.
David Allan Cates will read from his latest novel “Tom Connor’s Gift” at Shakespeare & Co. at 7 p.m. Tuesday.