David Allan Cates | Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home

Books & Writers

“Oh, what a strange trip home! Would there be no waking relief? No solid ground to stand on?” Not for Ben Armstrong, the dream-addled protagonist in the fourth novel by Missoula author David Allan Cates.

The book won the gold medal for Best Regional Fiction, Midwest, in the 2013 Independent Publisher Book Awards, handed out at a ceremony May 29 in New York City. Almost 2,500 independent authors and publishers competed in the contest, and 382 medals were awarded in fiction and nonfiction categories.

Cates’s novel, set in Wisconsin, was self-released by the author. “To get this kind of award makes me feel confirmed in my judgment that the book had to get out there,” Cates told the Billings Gazette.

Ben Armstrong was living his version of a good life, when the apparition of his long-dead mother urged him to head home after a 25-year absence to make peace with his brother. But upon arriving at the farm where he grew up, the 50-year-old Armstrong tumbles into a fantastical realm, where waking and sleeping seem inseparable, where his dead grandmother – chewing pemmican and hobnobbing with spirits – guides him on a journey, where his brother, Danny, turns into a giant fish, and his sister-in-law, Sara, seduces him again and again.

He discovers in this disheveled dreamscape a blood-soaked family history of violence and massacre. “This strange trip home in search of love and self-forgiveness had not worked out so well.”

Or had it? Cates has written a mesmerizing story that lurches between dream and reality, through shattered childhood memories and a history that belongs to all of us. Redemption, it seems, comes from self-knowledge, learning “to hold all the possibilities of home again in his heart.”

“Endlessly inventive in its language, masterful in its fidelity to its own harsh vision, and symphonic in its impact, this novel builds from a series of perverse fractions to a darkly satisfying whole,” writes David James Duncan. And Debra Magpie Earling lauds it as “invitingly mysterious and breathtakingly compelling … it opens out to mythic possibilities, the strange truth of life.”

Cates, who teaches writing and is the executive director of Missoula Medical Aid, has written three previous novels: Hunger In America, X Out of Wonderland and Freeman Walker.

– Kristi Niemeyer