Review of Matthew Clark Davison’s Doubting Thomas
Matthew Clark Davison’s debut novel, Doubting Thomas, will be published in Summer 2021 by Amble Press. He is creator and teacher of The Lab: Writing Classes with MCD, a non-academic school started in 2007 in a friend’s living room. The textbook version of The Lab, co-authored by bestselling writer Alice LaPlante, will be published by Norton in 2022. His prose has been recently anthologized in Empty The Pews (Epiphany Publishing) and 580-Split; and published in or on The Advocate, Guernica, The Atlantic Monthly, Foglifter, Exquisite Pandemic, and others. Matthew earned a BA and MFA in Creative Writing from SFSU, where he now teaches full-time in the BA/MA/MFA departments.
Photo by Robyn Navarro Photography.
What happens when a gay male teacher is accused of molesting his male 4th grade student by the boy’s parents? In Matthew Clark Davison’s debut novel, Doubting Thomas, this nightmare unfolds before Thomas McGurrin’s eyes. He is accused of touching one of his students by parents whom he thought he had a close relationship with after the boy’s father drunkenly kisses Thomas during a charity event. The betrayal, sordid gossip, misunderstandings, and anger are all here, and could all easily slip into the melodrama of a Lifetime movie, but Davison wisely steers clear of that; the book is not about the scandal and injustice of this singular event. It doesn’t end when the case is settled – the case is settled in the first half of the book. This novel is about the ripples an event, really more of a hate crime, has on the entire life of its victim.
The book opens at Country Day an elite progressive private school in Portland, near the end of the investigation of the allegation. All the details are revealed immediately and plainly, deflating the juicy tension that is typically sketched in these stories. There is no corrupt police officer or unjust punishment to anger the reader. Instead, we inhabit Thomas’ mind, his past, present, and what happens well over a year after the case is resolved. We don’t even get through the final conference with the school and the parents before Thomas is already recalling his past, remembering his brother’s near-death experience and a break-up with a boyfriend. Thomas scrutinizes his emotional states, cultural events, and his life so much that the reader is nearly lost in what seem to be asides and anecdotes. Davison skillfully pulls these different threads back to the scandal.
Thomas meets a man named Russ when he moves back to San Francisco who teaches him how to ride a motorcycle as a casual date. Later, when they engage in sex, Thomas realizes how long it’s been since he was intimate and so open, and how much his self-expression had been affected by his job: “How on earth had he let himself become Country Day’s token gay? He practically turned himself into a eunuch to please the parents.” When Thomas reconnects with his ex-boyfriend, he now notices their age difference – Thomas older – and wonders if people thought Thomas was a predator because of who he dated. He even wonders if his ex’s family thought that of him, too. Everything in his life is re-examined and filtered through the abuse allegations.
Davison’s other work often deals with these streams of consciousness. Davison follows moments of trauma outward in every direction, finding all the casualties, bystanders or not. It works especially well in the long form of a novel. Decades into the past, Thomas, recalls a moment in his childhood when he let his younger brother, Jake, sleep in bed with him because their mom was out. Their older brother, James, finds them wrapped in each other’s arms and scolds Thomas for showing any affection to another male. This seemingly distant moment, Thomas realizes, played a role in how he thought that if he molded himself to fit what the parents wanted of a gay teacher – someone sexless, funny, a friend to drink Chardonnay with, who doesn’t act too feminine – he could become one of them.
All of this centers back on doubt. Regardless of what Thomas has achieved, and no matter how many times he has proven himself a great teacher, can straight parents (and even gay ones) ever relinquish of the insidious myth of the gay child predator? Davison spends the latter part of the book exploring this question in its biggest and most explosive ways, but there are too many spoilers to reveal in detail here. The real story, the real heat of the book is not the sensationalism of the accusation, but its effects on the entirety of the accused’s life, love, and family.
Doubting Thomas will be available June 8th from Amble Press.
Cover Art by Ann McMan, TreeHouse Studio.
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