Matthew Clark Davison’s first novel, Doubting Thomas (272 pages; Amble Press) tells the story of a fourth-grade teacher, gay and out, named Thomas McGurrin, who—while navigating the familial turmoil of his brother’s recent cancer diagnosis—is falsely accused of inappropriately touching one of his students at a private school in Portland. The community, however unintentionally, goes from promoting Thomas as a symbol of their own progress to casting him as a pariah. Thomas, even after being found innocent, is forced to leave his job.
Davison’s writing has been published widely, including in Guernica, The Atlantic Monthly, Foglifter, Fourteen Hills, and other publications. In addition to teaching in San Francisco State University’s Creative Writing Department, Matthew also created The Lab, a non-academic school that for nearly fifteen years has been helping writers “generate new work or deepen existing projects.” A textbook based on The Lab, co-written with Alice LaPlante, will be published by W.W. Norton in 2022.
The prose in Davison’s novel is lucid, sensitive, and gorgeous as he weaves a story of evolving relationships, vacillating self-perception, and deeply entrenched hypocrisy. We recently spoke with him via email about Doubting Thomas.
ZYZZYVA: Upon first reading Doubting Thomas, I guessed that the eponymous “doubts” were about whether Thomas McGurrin really did behave inappropriately with that child—intentionally or not—or perhaps whether Thomas was capable of behaving in such a way. By the end, I felt the “truth” that Thomas doubts had more to do with how queer/non-heteronormative persons are regularly perceived by the world. Was there a particular interpretation of the Gospel that drew you to this title for your novel? Did the Biblical connection come later in the creative process or was that always part of the design?
MATTHEW CLARK DAVISON: Doubting Thomas started as a short story. For me, titles are especially perplexing but this one came right away. For years and years, the first line of the book was: He didn’t do it. Why? I wanted it to be crystal clear that the investigation was not the story’s central concern.
As a kid raised Catholic, I thought the Bible’s Thomas was the only sensible one of the twelve apostles. It has never made sense to me why faith and proof needed to be mutually exclusive. Blind faith in an individual has always seemed dangerous to me.
I couldn’t get my mind around the Catholic concept of transubstantiation—the same sort of thing that essentially estranged Thomas in the Bible. I loved the metaphor and gleaned deep meaning from it, but I couldn’t honestly say I believed. My questions in Sunday school were usually: Come on, you think he walked on water? Turned water into wine? How did the basket that held Moses not fill with water? Why can’t women be priests?
Adults in my life called me “Doubting Thomas” when I was a kid. They meant it as a pejorative, but eventually I took it as a compliment. Like “queer.” Thomas in the novel doesn’t like the word, but I love how “queer” has evolved from harmful to empowering.
Always get the last word.
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I’m fascinated and frightened by the power of groupthink and the ways in which human beings seem to want (need?) a pariah to validate their own systems. The circumstances Thomas faces in the novel make him doubt absolutely everything. Up until the unraveling, Thomas McGurrin had something close to blind faith in Country Day (the institution where he worked), and also in the educational institution; as if it’s a catch-all and save-all. My guess is that most people are forced to contend (or willfully do not) with what’s “bad” about the institutions they support.
Z: You play very fluidly with time and memory in Doubting Thomas. In my experience, painful or traumatic memories can be triggered at a moment’s notice and can derail anywhere from thirty seconds to the rest of the day. What were your intentions in not exactly jumbling the chronology, but doling out information about Thomas’ past, his family, his relationships, in choice paragraphs spread out over the entire book?
MCD: My intention was to portray a year in a character’s life where nearly every so-called present-day experience seems to resurface the past—memories he’s avoided—and force him to rethink his future. As for the book’s structure, Thomas’s past is only relevant insofar as it helps him reshape and recontextualize his messy present so he can imagine a future.
Memory happens in the present. In many MFA-y discussions I’ve endured, the so-called present-moment is valued over flashback. Writing classes tend to say it jams forward momentum. I get why this false wisdom exists, but I disagree with it wholeheartedly. Everything depends. I see my job as a storyteller to get my reader to stay.
Compelling storytelling can lure me in and get me to stay. The illusion of action is one means of engagement some writers offer to some readers.
Narrative is one of the only artforms capable of illuminating experiences like ours: of spending entire days in which “lived” present-time is simultaneous and interweaved with memory and projections of the future and other internal associations. It seems absurd that anyone would forbid or rebuke the use of anything an artform offers, especially something this particular to the form. I celebrate it, and it needs to be earned.
Z: The concept of “passing” comes up a lot in Doubting Thomas. Mostly around how Thomas is passably acceptable to the parents of the outrageously expensive school where he worked. He is “out” but not too flamboyant so as to be the token gay role model. Another version of passing is epitomized by the supposedly liberal communities of big coastal cities like Portland—paying eloquent lip service to equity and open-mindedness, but ready to bare their teeth and close ranks at the first sign of trouble. To what extent is silence a form of dishonesty?
MCD: That’s one of the questions the book tries to explore. In the past, I’ve jumped to conclusions about others’ silence more quickly than I would now. Willful silence can be a form of dishonesty. There are also the less willful forms of silence that may arise from delayed reaction or cognitive dissonance or fear—or some combination thereof. I’ve probably unintentionally hurt more people by saying too much too soon without providing proper context (usually a trauma-response more than a plan) than I have with silence. That’s partially why it was interesting for me to inhabit Thomas. He’s so measured, so slow to draw attention to himself or assert his opinion.
The characters I portrayed are driven by so many forces outside themselves. It’s hard to get quiet enough to know one’s own values; and harder still to articulate them or uphold them in a capitalist society—especially one that pretends it’s a meritocracy. The set-up pits us against each other.
Queer people and other historically marginalized folks have an opportunity to see the holes in the mainstream scripts because they weren’t written for us, but we’re not immune from forming our own scripts or hierarchies, either. I hope the book examines the difficulty of being our siblings’ keepers, and that the family I portrayed offers a very particular set of opportunities for the bigger questions like yours.
Rather than evil, I see the adult Jays who accuse Thomas and the Country Day community as those living in a dream world, a construct they’re afraid to lose. I think it’s fair to say Thomas lived in a dream world, too. They all use access and money to create a bubble in an attempt to control life’s chaos. The bubble protects them and mirrors back their ideal selves. They want to appear clean, and the situation at Country Day turned messy (just like the AIDS plague turned San Francisco messy for Thomas years prior). Toby, Thomas’s student, doesn’t accuse Thomas. He just says a fact: “Thomas touched my pants.” That fact gets messy in the mind of the parents. I’m interested in what happens to people when things get messy.
Z: Speaking of messy, you do a marvelous job of depicting a sprawling, realistically messy family in the McGurrins. Did you have a lot of siblings and cousins growing up, and did they find their way into the book somehow?
MCD: Thank you. I’m a sucker for a great dysfunctional family saga, but I’m just as interested in families whose members love each other like a bunch of bumper cars.
My real-life family is multiracial and engages in discussions like Thomas and his family, but none of my portrayals are autofiction in this book.
The way I hope my family comes through most clearly is in the humor. Even when we’ve faced tragedy, we’ve always laughed. I tried to capture this quality and give it to the McGurrins.
Z: I’d be curious to hear what key novels or authors influenced the writing of Doubting Thomas.
MCD: Circling back to your first question about present-time and memory, the following have been models: Beloved by Toni Morrison. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid.
For three brothers, one queer, We the Animals by Justin Torres is the book I last read before turning Doubting Thomas into a novel. It has influenced me in countless ways. The Hours by Michael Cunningham for its examination of friendship and family and balance of thought and action. Lawnboy by Paul Lisicky. That book is brilliant in its use of revealing character through setting. Less by Andrew Sean Grear combines humor and tragedy and a “nice” middle-aged gay guy. AIDS slyly comes into his narrative and has this huge impact on the character Arthur. I read it after Doubting Thomas was finished, but it inspired me to keep pursuing publication. Although very different books, mine and his explore some of the same themes, so it was a beacon for me, even before it was awarded the Pulitzer.
The short stories “Terrorphobia” by Ashley Nelson Levy, “Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing”by Lydia Peele, and “The Other Place” by Mary Gaitskill also informed some of my decisions. Also, the brilliant “White Angel” by Michael Cunningham.
There are so many more, but I’ll leave it there for now.
Adam Winograd is a recent graduate of Lesley University with an MFA in Creative Writing. He has written book reviews for Kirkus, movie reviews on his blog, and is currently writing his first novel. Adam lives and works in the greater Boston area.