David Allan Cates has experimented with new forms in each novel: tragedy, satire, even American creation myths. In his latest, though, the Missoula writer is testing a new sort of freedom: self-publishing.
“Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home,” his fourth book, is a surreal and illuminating homecoming tale in which the titular D.C. professional returns to the family farm to reunite with his brother. Why is he 25 years gone? A long-ago affair with Danny’s girlfriend and now wife that drove him away from fly-over country toward a hollow pursuit of success in the mid-Atlantic.
It’s a Cain-and-Abel setup, but its components are scrambled in the telling. The story unfolds in fevered dream sequences, and readers don’t learn in a linear manner the details of his family’s tangled past, his affair with Sarah and his often troubled upbringing. Cates instead writes almost exclusively in hallucinatory scenes that involve a character turning into a fish, talking plants, heart-to-hearts with his dead grandparents, pioneers’ slaughter of the plains Indians, ghosts and painful re-enactments of Ben’s most guilt- and lust-racked memories. One recurring plot strand reads much like a sinister Monte Dolack painting: Ben and Sarah dragging Danny’s body, which takes the form of a giant fish, in a Radio Flyer wagon to the ocean for an appropriate burial they’ve researched via the Internet.
To render such strangeness convincingly, Cates focused on writing simple descriptions of the surreal environments. “I worked very hard at constructing the kind of prose that would allow a reader to have the experience of this reality,” he said. The renderings of place and character had to be persuasive, even in unreal settings, he said, to allow dream-like shifts in time from the present to 20 years in the past, to grim interactions with his pioneer ancestors.
But it’s not odd for the sake of odd: Cates’ circling structure convincingly relays the disorder of memory upon a return home, one of his largest themes along with questions of identity, love and redemption. “Its subject matter is the nature of our lives. What is real in our lives.”
Cates himself calls it a “strange novel,” one that began in draft form 11 to 12 years ago, inspired by the Wisconsin farm he grew up on and by a fellow writer, Ralph Beer, who frequently took Cates on long walks to share the vast, multi-generational history of his family’s ranch in Helena with stories down to a tree stub, among the myriad other sources that inform works of fiction.
The book’s experimental nature and the current publishing environment, which pushes authors to re-prove their worth with each new manuscript, drove his decision to self-publish.
“My first three books were published by three vastly different publishers: Simon & Schuster, a giant company; Steerforth Press, very small; and Unbridled, which is a midsized fiction (and nonfiction) house,” he said, a common track record in publishing today.
And those books didn’t go unnoticed. His first, “Hunger In America,” (1992) was a New York Times Notable Book. “X Out Of Wonderland,” (2005) and “Freeman Walker,” (2008) both were named Montana Book Award Honor Books, and in 2010 he earned the Montana Arts Council’s Artist Innovation Award in prose.
Despite the positive reviews the intervening novels had earned, “Ben Armstrong” still wasn’t getting picked up by publishers, and Cates grew impatient.
“This year I started to say, ‘I gotta publish “Ben Armstrong,’ ” because it means so much to me. It has to do with everything else I’ve ever written. It has to do with my whole growth as a writer or artist or a man.”
When he ran into friend and fellow writer Josh Wagner at a gathering in Missoula, Cates had a revelation about self-publishing. “Josh, ever since he was 20, has called himself a writer and he’s written books and published them,” Cates said admiringly.
“I looked at him across the fire, and I thought, ‘That guy’s the future. That guy’s it. The publishers don’t do anything.’ ”
Most writers such as himself don’t sell that many books, Cates said, “so why not do it ourselves? It’s what’s happened in film, with indie film, it’s what’s happened in music. Every band you know makes their own CDs.” Nobody’s waiting around for Columbia Records to sign them, he said.
Cates consulted Wagner for guidance on self-publishing, and then recruited others for the layout, copy editing and jacket design, and also received editing assistance, which he says is often lacking in self-publishing. “I also used people who played a role of the editor, who say, ‘This doesn’t work, that doesn’t work, this doesn’t work, that doesn’t work,’ ” he said.
The freshly available result, “Ben Armstrong,” is the second installment in a thematically related “homecoming” trilogy. The first was “Hunger in America,” which involves a young man’s trek to Kodiak, Alaska, to find his father, and hinges on whether he will return home to a Wisconsin farm.
The third, “Eastern Front,” is a first-person account of a widowed doctor sequestered in a cabin in the Rocky Mountains with letters from an old lover inside, and a bear on the outside. She’s trying to gain control of her grief so she can get home in time for Thanksgiving – like the others in the trilogy, to a Wisconsin farm.
That final volume is finished, and Cates said he won’t sit on it long, even though he feels it’s more accessible in structure and story. “My agent’s shopping it around, and if she’s not able to sell it to a traditional publisher, I will bring it out next year, fall 2013 or spring 2014,” he said.
He wants his work readily available in the world regardless of its sales or whether there’s a publisher to try to get it on the shelves of bookstores.
“I’ve gotten to this stage of my life where I go, ‘I don’t know if I’m any good, I don’t know what I am, but I’ve sure given it my best. And here it is.’ And I want all of it to be available on my website.”
Entertainer editor Cory Walsh can be reached at 523-5261 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.