“Tom Connor’s Gift”

“Tom Connor’s Gift”

By David Allan Cates

David Allan Cates writes like a jazz musician plays an instrument. He starts with a simple storyline, and then he slowly sucks you into the lush prose and wry humor that is his trademark. Soon you find yourself wondering what the story was. And then the themes start to emerge again, in subtle reminders, and you suddenly recognize a familiar melody. What you eventually realize is that it was never the tune that mattered; it was the entirety of the experience.

In Cates’ first novel, “Hunger in America,” cab driver Jack Dempsey Cliff spends an entire night searching for a father he never knew, as well as a bite to eat. Cates’ fourth novel, “Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home,” which won the Gold Medal at the 2013 Independent Publisher Book Awards, tells the story of a man returning home to sort through family matters after the death of his brother. And in his new novel, “Tom Connor’s Gift,” protagonist Janine McCarthy secludes herself in a Montana cabin to contemplate the recent death of her husband.

The story is told through three different narratives. The first is present-day Janine, newly widowed and trying to come to terms with a marriage that was good but not perfect. More importantly, she is trying to come to terms with a much older relationship with a man named Tom Connor. When Janine was 16, she snuck out of the house one night to travel to Montana with Tom Connor, who had learned that his mother was dying of cancer there. When the pair arrives in Helena, Tom’s mother has already checked out of the hospital, apparently not dying after all, and is off to Costa Rica.

The events of the few days that follow throw Janine into adulthood in a way that many people would not survive. But Janine goes on to not only recover, but to attend medical school and to become a successful doctor with two children.

Although she rarely sees Tom Connor after that initial trip, Janine starts receiving letters from him a few years later, and these letters make up the second storyline. Tom Connor became a journalist, and at first his letters seem to be nothing more than the ramblings of an extremely intelligent, interesting man who has had the opportunity to see much of the world. He never lets Janine know how to get in touch with him. He never asks her how she’s doing.

The third storyline is Janine’s life after Tom. Cates shows the effect Tom has on her in an incredible scene in which she receives a letter from him just as she is about to marry another man. Although there is nothing in the letter that indicates Tom is interested in her, she realizes from a story he tells that she is not in love with Pierre, and she backs out of the marriage.

Tom Connor’s gift, as it turns out, is that his letters have gently and quietly influenced Janine’s perspective and many of the decisions she makes. Tom’s life does not end well, and there is no sappy realization that she made the wrong choice. After all, there is never anything sappy about Cates’ novels. Instead, this is the kind of novel that challenges the reader to listen carefully and experience the entire song.

Russell Rowland is the author of three novels. “In Open Spaces” made the bestseller list for the San Francisco Chronicle. “The Watershed Years” and “High and Inside” were both finalists in the High Plains Book Awards. Rowland lives in Billings.

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