Ben Armstrong's Strange Trip Home

"Ben Armstrong's Strange Trip Home," the latest novel from Missoula author David Allan Cates.


"Ben Armstrong's Strange Trip Home"

This is a dream of a book. Literally.

Fifty-year-old Ben is living what would be considered a good life when the image of his long-dead mother suddenly appears to him and urges him to head home. It has been 25 years since Ben stepped foot on the family farm. The ghost of his mother speaks: “Your brother forgives you. Don’t waste that.” Thus begins Mr. Armstrong’s wild ride, led by Missoula author David Allan Cates.

Ben carries baggage and guilt by the truckload, and it all gets wrapped up in the feverish dreams that release pockets of memory, time, longing, loss and grief. People and situations change in fantastical and horrific ways, just as we imagine in our own dreams. The seam between real and imagined seems to rip a little. Ben’s brother Dan appears as a fish. Ben’s grandmother, a “spirited” character in the book, hangs out with a Native American long gone and leads Dan to ghost villages and sites of massacres to come that pop up here and there. His sister-in-law Sara, with whom he had a long-term affair, appears again and again to seduce him, as does the location of their secret trysts. One interesting scene is Ben reaching above his head for a flying piece of meat — the last piece of meat a reader would expect a character to enjoy. Cates’ doesn’t dwell on the grotesque, however, and moves along in the dreamscape.

A very interesting premise of the book is the linking of Ben’s own guilt and shame and memories of childhood trauma to vividly bloody and shameful events in America’s past. Cates captures this correlation very well. Actually, Cates covers the definition of a dream really well and the qualities of dreams that are familiar: people, places, events, situations changing and shifting quickly and appearing to have no connection. But, then, in this inventive novel, they really do. Can you really go home again? Do you want to? What do you face when you get there?

Cates’ description of the landscape, of home, is “grounded” — natural and real and something the reader can easily identify with:

“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.”

There will be sections of this book that will absolutely startle you and force you to want to re-read for clarification and for impact. I think this makes the novel all the more distinctive. This is truly a work you have never read before.

Each little piece of Cates’ novel — the dreams, the reality, the history, the fantastical, the humorous, the weird, the erotic and the redemption — adds up to, in the end, a really engaging story. The challenge for the reader is to make sense and give meaning to the mixed-up and messed-up shifts between the real and the seemingly unreal. Cates’ masterful writing leads you there. I can assure you your imagination will be wholly engaged throughout. This is one book you won’t soon forget.

Cates teaches writing and is the executive director of Missoula Medical and has written three previous novels — "Hunger in America," "X out of Wonderland" and "Freeman Walker."

"Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home" is the second novel in his Homecoming Trilogy.

Jill Munson, a librarian, lives in Columbia Falls.