In this novel, the second in Cates’ Homecoming Trilogy, and a Gold Medalist in the Independent Publishers Book Awards, a fifty-year old Ben Armstrong comes back to his boyhood farm. The result is a homecoming story like no homecoming story you’ve ever read before….

Interviews and Reviews:

Montana Public Radio, The Write Question
The Missoulian Interview with the Author
The Billings Gazette
Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home « Coffee Spew

More praise for Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home

In this haunted and haunting novel, David Allan Cates takes the darling Yankee notions of free will, Manifest Destiny, linear time, and progress, shoves them where the sun don’t shine, and proceeds to paint what one man’s world becomes without them. The result is a deliberately troubling masterpiece.

Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home begins with an all-American homecoming that traps its middle-aged ex-farmboy protagonist like a fly in a web worthy of Kafka. Cates’ hero endures an inescapable series of dreams, visitations, half-melted memories, and unsought meetings with the living and dead. His subsequent attempts to escape — or even understand his entrapment — proceed to make a mesmerizing, one-of-a-kind music I’ve heard nowhere else in our literature.

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.

–David James Duncan, author of The Brother’s K and The River Why

I love this book. I picked it up in Montana on a road trip to Minnesota. It carried me along in its backdraft and my imagination was completely engaged for a thousand miles. I like to think about the images and replay the feelings they roused: erotic, startled, awakened.

–Sheryl Noethe, the Montana Poet Laureate and author of AS IS

David Allan Cates ignites a new vision of Cain and Abel. Invitingly mysterious and breathtakingly compelling—the story takes on the shape of a rattling tale. Although the story is dreamlike, it does not stall or coerce like a dream—it opens out to mythic possibilities, the strange truths of life. There is a deep hunger for literature that expresses desire and fear with fearlessness and David Allan Cates is on that cutting edge. Wonderful—an Alice in Wonderland journey for grown-ups.

—Debra Magpie Earling, author of Perma Red

David Allan Cates may take you places you’ve never been, have never imagined going—to a dead brother slowly turning into a fish on your staircase landing, say, or into the fields around your house only to find a ghost troop of Union soldiers encamped there—but his great knowledge of the deep workings of the human heart serves as an unerring guide wherever his story leads.

This is a deeply moving work by an uncannily gifted writer.

–Pete Fromm, author of Indian Creek Chronicles, and How all this Started


Excerpt: Chapter One

When Ben Armstrong woke he heard the mourning dove coo in the cedar tree outside his open window. He heard cows bawling in the pasture and smelled fresh dew, yet he felt a vague dread in the marrow of his bones. Summer again? He could have sworn just last night it was fall, or maybe even winter. He blinked and looked around the familiar room. Back on the home farm after twenty-five years away, lying in his boyhood bed—-no wonder he felt strange.He listened to water running downstairs, a pan banging, and a woman singing. The sounds reassured him. He smelled sausage and coffee until his stomach began to grumble, and then in a sudden boyish burst, he got out of bed and opened the bedroom door with the intent of bounding down the stairs, ready to eat.

But in a warm patch of sunlight spread across the landing at the top of the stairs, he saw something that stopped him cold. His brother lay sprawled on his back, head hanging over the top step.


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.’

‘What?’ Ben whispered. He felt slow and dizzy. Sara took his hand and helped him stand and reluctantly step over Danny’s body and begin down the stairs. In the living room she handed him a handkerchief. He sat down on the couch and blew his nose. His forehead was sweating profusely so he folded the hanky and wiped his skin dry. He remembered drinking whiskey and laughing late into the night with his brother—but was that last night or years ago?

‘Not remembering is probably for the best,’ she said, and again he felt her hand on his. He stood and she led him without resistance down the steps to the yard and around the house through the back gate into the pasture. She was suddenly taller, slimmer, and younger. She wore bell-bottom blue jeans and a pink blouse, and he walked slightly behind her, still in his baggy boxers. He liked the way her short brown hair lay against her collar and touched her neck.

‘Where are the girls?’ he asked.

‘Grown,’ she said. ‘Jessie’s on the East Coast. Ivy’s on the West.’

‘Where are we going?’

She relaxed her grip on his hand. ‘I thought after having been gone for so long, you might like to see the place again.’

‘Sure, but what about Danny?’

Sara Koepke paused to look at him, her brown eyes patient. Ben felt stupid. He noticed her lipstick, red as blood. Had she been wearing it before? A puffy white cloud hung in the blue sky behind her head.

‘Aren’t we lucky to have such a pretty day?’ she said.

Ben followed her past the wooden corncrib and into the pasture sparkling with dew. The grass grew ankle deep and thick, and as they crossed the valley, he got suddenly very cold and noticed uncountable bones scattered about. They felt hard and uncomfortable under his bare feet. He shivered.

‘I never noticed these when I was a kid,’ he said.

‘Sure you did,’ she said.

Ben decided to walk with his eyes closed and that was better, easier. He felt warm again, and heard robins and sparrows and the occasional loopy call of a meadowlark. He was a boy again, barefoot in the summer pasture. Sara walked just ahead of him and even blind he could feel her nearness.

‘Why is Danny growing scales on his neck?’ Ben asked, his own voice barely recognizable to him, childlike.

‘He’s turning into a fish,’ she said.

Ben tried to think about that but didn’t know how to begin. He walked fast to keep up, and after stumbling twice he opened his eyes again. Sara’s arms swung from side to side as she stepped across a little creek and began to climb a hill into the woods. Ben scrambled after her. The trail was lined on either side with birches bending toward one another, making a tunnel of white and green.

‘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?’


Listen to an interview with the author on Montana Public Radio, The Write Question for August 16, 2012

Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home « Coffee Spew A Review, June 26, 2012, by Bob Wake

Among many things that novelist David Allan Cates does with unnerving skill in Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home is capture a quality we all recognize from dreams in which personalities and situations inexplicably shift and mutate with dizzying speed through layers of time and memory.

The challenge for both author and reader is to bring shared meaning and coherence to jumbled time frames and private metaphors. Middle-aged Ben Armstrong, returning to his Midwestern boyhood home and finding himself roiled in disturbing fever dreams, begins to wonder with alarm, “Was there any other way home besides the strange way?” His brother is turning into a fish. The landscape shimmers with Indian ghost villages sprung to life and pioneer trails bustling with holographic ancestors. Such are the CGI special-effects that the subconscious seems to have perfected long before Ovid’s Metamorphoses reminded us that “everything must change,” or Christopher Nolan’s Inception announced that, “When we’re asleep, we can do almost anything.” Cates’s bold narrative uncannily mirrors the seemingly arbitrary and at given moments terrifying attributes of dreaming with which we’re so intimately familiar. More ambitious still, almost crazy ambitious, the author wants to construct a collective unconscious for us that links Ben Armstrong’s personal shame, as well as our own, to some very large themes on the dark side of American history.

Ben Armstrong has returned home with tons more baggage than just a suitcase. It’s been 25 years since he fled the family farm burdened with guilt over a six-year affair with his brother’s wife, Sara. Compounding the sadness is the family tragedy that Ben and his brother Dan share: the death of their parents in an automobile accident when the siblings were children. Now 50 years old, Ben feels that he has “spent his entire adult life hiding from desire and regret.” Where Ben Armstrong’s experiences and hallucinations might differ from our own in the particulars, they only rarely stray from universal psychic wounds like familial grief and romantic longing and loss. The narrative obsessively circles and picks at formative events in Ben’s life with the persistence of a nagging conscience. “I’m on a journey of self-forgiveness,” he recognizes, although no one warns him it will involve blood-soaked history lessons and willful spirit-guides like his dead mother and an especially feisty dead grandmother. “Now hush and stop shaking,” his grandmother admonishes as she escorts Ben to the suddenly very real site of an impending Indian massacre. He will huddle for warmth among the corpses and phantoms of slain Native American families. “It was a place he knew,” we’re told, “but he couldn’t remember how.” The locale, a Tom Sawyeresque “cave on a bluff above the river,” is the same charged place where a teenage Ben will lose his virginity and where, later, he will regularly meet Sara for adulterous sexual encounters.

Never mentioned by name, the region encompassing the Armstrong family farm strongly resembles the sharp cliffs and forested valleys of southwestern Wisconsin’s Driftless Area (Cates, now living in Montana, is originally from Madison, and spent time on a family farm near Spring Green):

Later, he would remember how everything seemed normal until the car left the main road for the narrow blacktop, winding into the hills where the continental glacier hadn’t quite reached, where hundred-thousand-year-old gullies had become deep hollows between steep wooded ridges. The hollows turned and forked, turned and forked again, and the sky itself narrowed, and he lost track of direction. He drove through barely familiar lowlands riddled with springs and spongy with marsh, past abandoned farms, crumbled cabins, towns with a tavern, a gas station and a church, past rocky ridges casting shadows different from any he’d ever seen before.

The landscape—beautifully evoked throughout—literally “grounds” the novel and provides a sturdy platform for the Hieronymus Bosch-like follies and depravities that greet Ben Armstrong during his night journey toward grace and self-absolution. Also like Bosch, Cates’s material can sometimes feel hermetic and inscrutable. There’s a mercifully brief, memorably grotesque episode, for instance, when Ben reaches above his head and pulls from the air “a flying hunk of meat” which he proceeds to eat and which turns out to be his own unattached anus. Whether or not this is Cates’s representation of, say, the Ouroboros self-reflexivity symbol of a serpent devouring its own tail is, well, anyone’s guess (at least it’s my guess). Does it really matter in a novel as inventive as this one that the weirdness occasionally erupts in a kind of homegrown psychedelic surrealism that’s as outrageous and funny as it is baffling? (For example, a roving news van from which steps a young female TV reporter with Tourette’s whose mic check consists of, “Testing, testing! Do me, do me! Do me like a doggy!”) Some reality-principle elements are perhaps left too tantalizingly vague, such as Ben’s job in “our nation’s capital,” where he’s an engineer working on a laser security system called “The Project.” The shadowy career seems more a product of an underdeveloped narrative thread than sinister ambiguity. To be sure, this is a story with a lot on its mind and much of it is buried where impulses and childhood trauma take center stage in the guise of symbols and cyphers. Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home is David Allan Cates’s fourth novel (his 1992 debut, Hunger in America, was a New York Times Notable Book) and it showcases a writer with an assured style stretching his talent in directions that in all likelihood are as thrillingly uncharted for the author as for the many readers who are sure to respond enthusiastically to this dream of a book.

The Missoula Independent Aug. 23, by Chris Dombrowski

...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).....

The Missoulian Interview with the Author August 23, 2012

The Billings Gazette Nov. 17, 2012 by Jill Munson

This is a dream of a book. Literally.

Fifty-year-old Ben is living what would be considered a good life when the image of his long-dead mother suddenly appears to him and urges him to head home. It has been 25 years since Ben stepped foot on the family farm. The ghost of his mother speaks: “Your brother forgives you. Don’t waste that.” Thus begins Mr. Armstrong’s wild ride, led by Missoula author David Allan Cates.

Ben carries baggage and guilt by the truckload, and it all gets wrapped up in the feverish dreams that release pockets of memory, time, longing, loss and grief. People and situations change in fantastical and horrific ways, just as we imagine in our own dreams. The seam between real and imagined seems to rip a little. Ben’s brother Dan appears as a fish. Ben’s grandmother, a “spirited” character in the book, hangs out with a Native American long gone and leads Dan to ghost villages and sites of massacres to come that pop up here and there. His sister-in-law Sara, with whom he had a long-term affair, appears again and again to seduce him, as does the location of their secret trysts. One interesting scene is Ben reaching above his head for a flying piece of meat — the last piece of meat a reader would expect a character to enjoy. Cates’ doesn’t dwell on the grotesque, however, and moves along in the dreamscape.

A very interesting premise of the book is the linking of Ben’s own guilt and shame and memories of childhood trauma to vividly bloody and shameful events in America’s past. Cates captures this correlation very well. Actually, Cates covers the definition of a dream really well and the qualities of dreams that are familiar: people, places, events, situations changing and shifting quickly and appearing to have no connection. But, then, in this inventive novel, they really do. Can you really go home again? Do you want to? What do you face when you get there?

Cates’ description of the landscape, of home, is “grounded” — natural and real and something the reader can easily identify with:

“He drove through barely familiar lowlands riddled with springs and spongy with marsh, past abandoned farms, crumbled cabins, towns with a tavern, a gas station and a church, past rocky ridges casting shadows different from any he’d ever seen before.”

There will be sections of this book that will absolutely startle you and force you to want to re-read for clarification and for impact. I think this makes the novel all the more distinctive. This is truly a work you have never read before.

Each little piece of Cates’ novel — the dreams, the reality, the history, the fantastical, the humorous, the weird, the erotic and the redemption — adds up to, in the end, a really engaging story. The challenge for the reader is to make sense and give meaning to the mixed-up and messed-up shifts between the real and the seemingly unreal. Cates’ masterful writing leads you there. I can assure you your imagination will be wholly engaged throughout. This is one book you won’t soon forget.

Cates teaches writing and is the executive director of Missoula Medical and has written three previous novels — "Hunger in America," "X out of Wonderland" and "Freeman Walker."

"Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home" is the second novel in his Homecoming Trilogy.

The Montana Kaimin Oct. 10, 2012 by Billie Loewen

It’s Ben Armstrong’s first trip home in 26 years, and things are not going exactly as he hoped. His brother has turned into a fish. He is still lusting after his brother’s wife, Sara, and linear time seems to be broken as he is forced to jump from one season to the next, one painful memory in his past to another, until reality and memory are too difficult to distinguish.

Since the last time he left his Wisconsin ranch, Ben has not stopped running from himself or his regrets, and now as he sits on his childhood bed, he can’t help but wonder, “Did I really think I could get home so easily? On a jet plane and in a rental car?”

University of Montana adjunct professor and author David Allan Cates’ fourth book, “Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home” is exactly what the title suggests. After 25 years in Washington, D.C., hiding from both desire and regret, Ben drives the back roads to his childhood home in rural Wisconsin, back to where his grandparents raised him and his brother after the tragic death of their parents, where he lost his virginity and where he fell in love with his brother’s wife.

Cates, clearly inspired by his own Wisconsin roots, weaves delicate and blazing scenes. Details of the land and iconic imagery throughout Ben’s journey are so specific and crisp that the setting feels familiar. It is perhaps these details that ground the book in a sense of reality when everything else feels like fantasy.

“Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home” is the type of book you can pick up, read a few chapters, and set back down for a while. The curiosity to know more, to check in with Ben, lingers until you are ready to keep reading.

The storyline takes place in a series of hallucinations and nightmares, with brief returns to the present, though always appearing to be in a dream-like state. At first, Ben’s character seems entirely driven by the sexual fantasies he never really gave up as a boy, but merely ran from. Initially, Ben seems like a per-pubescent boy still infatuated with his first crush. Every decision he makes is driven by sex, the scenes full of undeniable tension and overcast sexual imagery.

And yet, through it all, Ben is given the chance to relive every moment that mattered and every moment that made no sense when it was happening: The death of his grandfather, days playing with his brother, the days after their parents’ death and every poor decision. But Ben is also given the chance to recreate all the moments he wanted: More moments with Sara Koepke, the girl he grew up with, the girl who grew up to marry his brother, and the more fantastic and disturbing moments of sex and sexual tension with her.

The deeply formed characters and the blending of the real and the fantastic leave the reader with another haunting mystery that comes when they think they’ve figured it all out, when we can see ourselves as Ben. And yet, Sarah reminds us as she reminded Ben, it is never too late for redemption. “You only have one more thing to do,” she says. “Save yourself.”

Cates’ protagonist reminds us all that we can run from our roots. We can even recreate ourselves in a new place, but we can’t escape the call of home: The incessant need to return, to see if things are different or if they could ever be the same.

Cates is the author of four books, the first of which, 1992’s “Hunger in America,” was a New York Times notable book. He works for the Missoula Writing Collaborative and has taught both in public schools in Missoula and at the University of Montana. He gave guest lectures in my high school creative writing classes and last year, he taught a guest lecture in one of my college courses.

Cates comes from a family of Wisconsin cattle farmers and his Midwestern roots, perhaps more than any of his other fictions, shine in “Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home.”

Craig Lancaster: When I heard that Montana author David Allan Cates had a new novel, Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home, coming out and that he’d formed his own publishing company to release it, I knew that I had to talk to him about this. Truth be told, talking to David was long overdue. We share a state, know a lot of the same people, and I’ve been a big admirer of his writing since I read Freeman Walker, his fine 2008 novel from Unbridled Books. That he’d started a literary press (as I did a couple of years ago) and had decided to try self-publishing offered a sense of kinship long before I exchanged email with him. I’m happy to say that the subsequent electronic conversation made his journey all the more fascinating to me.....
Read the rest at David Allan Cates takes his own path | Craig Lancaster


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