March 9, 2022
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Matthew Clark Davison's novel is a poignant, timely, and auspicious debut.
The San Francisco Chronicle wrote of the book:
"Sharply probing . . . Thanks to the care Davison pays to his characters―each one a fully realized, thinking human in Thomas’s orbit―what could be an over-serving of tragedy is instead delivered with clarity and nuance. The result is a novel that manages to take on a number of the world’s traumas . . . using the personal travails of a gay man at the dusk of Obama’s America to probe at the nature of what it truly means to know oneself."
Very early on in my book, Doubting Thomas, the reader finds out that despite a pristine record of service to the community, Thomas McGurrin, a gay man in his early 40s, is let go from a job he cherished in Portland, Oregon, even after he’s cleared of suspicion that he may have inappropriately touched one of his forth graders. This upheaval thrusts him back into his current-day family life and gives way to a barrage of memory.
Set in Obama-era hyper-liberal Portland, Oregon, Thomas is forced to get a lawyer. After the case settles, Jerome, the lawyer, helps Thomas pack for a return move to San Francisco—a place he left for Portland to avoid experiencing the ravaging effects of AIDS. Of all of songs on Thomas’s old CDs that they play while packing, Echo & the Bunnymen’s “Bring on the Dancing Horses” is the one that best captures the angsty vibe I associate with life’s transitional points. Ian McCulloch said about the song, "It's about the way people would sooner look at statues than themselves.”
Arguably Thomas could’ve looked more closely at himself prior to his personal crisis. The community that banished would undoubtedly also benefit from introspection.
More bands are named in that scene, and I chose these songs because in mood or lyrics (or both), they amplify, tweak or contrast Thomas’s dilemmas. “Heartbreak Beat” by The Psychedelic Furs, “Never Say Never” by Romeo Void, and those by Depeche Mode, Blondie, and New Order. The contrasting mood between two of the Jesus and Mary Chain songs: “Happy When it Rains” and “Nine Million Rainy Days” express two spots on Thomas’s emotional spectrum (joy and fury) in reaction to his luck: good and bad. Plus, the both involve rain: a constant in Portland.
The book has several plot turns that I hope are earned and unexpected. That said, as an artist, I’m less plot-driven and more fascinated in the contrasts between people’s private inner lives and the public selves we perform. I don’t get it why some publishers think there’s such thing as a good book that’s “too internal.” Literary novels don’t claim nor aspire to be action movies. Access to another’s inner life one major reason narrative exists.
In Doubting Thomas, I wanted to explore how the present day moment can block or give way to memories of the past. In many ways, Thomas’s “success” was a result of leaving his difficult past behind and moving on. But I’ve always suspected those who are unwilling to truly stay present during times of tension, difficulty, and discord avoid nothing in the long run. Avoidance leads to consequences. I’m a believer that there’s no way through except through. Fear and outrage are unavoidable parts of the human condition, but it’s often a choice to get stuck in them. Gestures of resolution—like a financial settlement to go away—are not the same as healing. We must be willing to engage. Otherwise, as we see every day, could-be allies are pitted against each other, usually by some system, and as wounds deepen and fester, the system gets stronger.
Many of the memories surfaced by Thomas’s present-day circumstances contain music. A drag queen lip-syncs to Madonna’s “Holiday” at a marriage equality fundraiser held a gay bar where Thomas, before all the trouble, shares a beer with a set of gay parents from the school community; the radio plays Sly & The Family Stone, Diana Ross & The Supremes, and Stevie wonder as Thomas’s mom Maddy takes him to Santa Cruz on a half-day at school; Portishead’s Dummy plays as Thomas experiences his first sexual encounter during his days as a student at U.C. Berkeley; “Finally” by CeCe Peniston plays when Thomas watches Jerome—years before he’s hired as a lawyer—on a dance floor.
I can’t describe it without spoilers, but two other songs on the playlist provide soundtrack for an important scene. They are also evidence of the teacher being his own student. I teach in a variety of places, including “The Lab,” a writing workshop I started in a friend’s living room in San Francisco in 2007. Right now I’m working on a pedagogy book, based on The Lab, with writer Alice LaPlante. It’s set to be published with W.W. Norton. I’ve heard that permissions for song lyrics are complicated and expensive for editors to acquire, so it likely won’t make it into the book, but one of the exercises I give students is to imagine a soundtrack for their scene. Once they do that, they choose a single song from the soundtrack that highlights or contrasts the emotional content of the scene and they work to weave the lyrics throughout. “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac and “If I should Fall Behind” by Bruce Springsteen are the two that made the cut when I attempted the exercise I assigned.
Matthew Clark Davison is a writer and educator living in San Francisco. He earned a BA and MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, where he now teaches full-time. His prose has been recently anthologized in Empty The Pews and 580-Split, and published in Guernica, The Atlantic Monthly, Foglifter, Lumina Magazine, Fourteen Hills, Per Contra, Educe, and others; and has been recognized with a Creative Work Grant, (Inaugural Awardee/San Francisco State University), Cultural Equities Grant (San Francisco Arts Commission), the Clark Gross Award for a Novel-in-Progress, and a Stonewall Alumni Award.