In Moonbear's Dream, Frank Asch's singular children's book, Bear and his friend Little Bird watch a kangaroo escaped from the zoo wander through Bear's yard. "Do you see what I see?" asks Little Bird. "I sure do," answers Bear, "but I can't believe my eyes. It looks like something from a dream!" "Maybe we are dreaming," chirps Little Bird. "Yes, that's it," Bear concludes, "We are probably asleep in our beds right now."
It is in a similar state of disturbed "reality," one that seamlessly melds the surreal and the actual, that Ben Armstrong's Strange Trip Home (Novelas Americanas) begins. Released this week, David Allan Cates's fourth novel, a surrealistic plummet through the subconscious, is also the second in his Wisconsin Homecoming Trilogy (the first was Hunger in America, 1992, a New York Times Notable Book; the third is the forthcoming Eastern Front), a trio of formally and stylistically disparate books each written a decade apart.
"I wake to sleep and take my waking slow," begins Theodore Roethke's beloved villanelle. "I learn by going where I have to go." Cates's protagonist, Ben Armstrong, wakes to find he's killed his brother, Danny (who has turned into a fish), and learns the tragic backstory by way of Danny's wife, Sara Koepke:
"Danny didn't move. His big body lay limp in a white T-shirt, baggy blue jeans, and his feet were bare. Ben knelt next to him and noticed a palm-sized patch of something shiny on the side of his brother's neck. He let his fingers graze over the spot, felt the smooth texture, the overlap of scales.
"'What stinks?' It was Sara Koepke, Danny's wife. She stood at the bottom of the stairs in her thick red bathrobe, looking up, wrinkling her nose. Ben was momentarily distracted by her disapproving frown, her elastic mouth. Still he managed to lay his ear down on Danny's cold chest. He heard no heartbeat but smelled a faint fish smell. He lifted his head.
"'I think he might be dead,' he said.
"Sara walked up the stairs and squatted beside Ben. She touched Danny's head tenderly, ran her fingers down his neck. 'Don't worry,' she said. 'It's not as if you're the first person in the world to kill his brother.'"
Ben's motives are soon revealed:
"'Besides not remembering killing him,' Ben said, 'there's something else I don't understand.'
"Sara stopped at the edge of the forest and turned to look at him. "'What now?'
"'Why would I?'
"Her red lips spread to a smile and her eyes sparkled. She leaned forward and kissed Ben lightly on the lips.
"'Because you love me,' she whispered. 'You always have. Don't you remember that either?'"
Fueled by a poetic ear for plainspoken but musical sentences (read: fondness for alliteration) and painterly eye for light and what light details, Cates's prose cascades down the page, words falling through sentences, sentences tumbling brightly through paragraphs. His notion of memory, strange time's passage and the "actuality of happenings" recall literature's great surrealists (Lorca, Vallejo, Breton), and Faulkner's notion (perhaps borrowed from indigenous cultures) that "the past is never dead. It's not even past."
However, Cates, the recipient of the 2010 Montana Arts Council's Artist Innovation Award in prose, is no Dali-knockoff, no second-rate Kafka. There is an exquisite logic to Ben Armstrong's Strange Trip Home, even if it's not entirely logical. It unfolds effortlessly, as Cates brilliantly plays the overtly philosophical ("We are never so alone," Ben's grandmother tells him, "as when we can no longer feel the dead") against the blatantly absurd (Ben carries his dead brother the fish around in a wagon for much of the novel).
"I was born a baby," writes Jim Harrison in a poem. "What are these thousand suits of clothes I've worn?" This is the question at the crux of Cates's novel: To where does our essential self disappear?
Late in the novel, Ben Armstrong's friend, Harold Little Boy, opines on the subject: "No matter how many times we change, we always carry a sense that our true self was lost a long time ago. This is our national affliction...The whole goddamn country suffers from it."
This is heady stuff for late August reading, and Ben Armstrong's Strange Trip Home is the kind of novel that deftly returns consequence to the lazy summer mind. Reading this book is like sipping White Russians all afternoon (the real recipe, not the vodka-less way the hipsters make them). They go down sweet and easy, but inevitably hit hard, hit heavy.