“If you wrote a book and called it ‘A Year in the Life of the McGurrins,’ editors wouldn’t buy it because too many bad things happen back to back,” says Thomas’s best friend Dana. I’m glad editors knew better than Dana and gave this book a chance, and a better title. Doubting Thomas is a minor key masterwork, brimming with understated intelligence.
Thomas McGurrin is a beloved fortysomething teacher in a wealthy progressive school in Portland, and yes, he’s having a bad year. In Thomas’s recent past is a bad break-up and the stress of his younger brother’s cancer. In his present is the unfounded allegation of inappropriately touching one his pupils. In his future are the repercussions of the claim, and further grief and tragedy.
If queer men leave home to find a place where being what they are will matter, then Thomas finds it in the liberal school’s welcoming embrace of his skills and perspective as an out gay teacher. Until the embrace proves hollow and the spurious allegation reveals the truth beneath the veneer of “Portland’s post-racial, pro-queer, Obama-bumper-sticker bubble of wealth.”
Once he sees how easily he can be torn down as a role model, even after demonstrating his innocence, Thomas begins to question the models around which he himself has built his sense of self, including two straight brothers with whom he has a gorgeous and complex relationship.
He navigates his way through a cruel year with a new compass, pondering which second chances are still available. Turns out grief can strike hard, again and again, whether it’s one person or a family (or say, a generation of gay men in the 80s and 90s). Grief brings not just pain but also new clarity: mourning his relationship, the school or a family member is also what allows Thomas to farewell the man he thought he was and become the one he knows he can be.
It is difficult for me to write about this book because it hit so close to home in a way I haven’t often found in gay literature. I had to pause several times to attempt to answer the same questions that plague Thomas. Why don’t I feel at home in queer communities? How much have I smoothed over my own queerness to please others, indulging their invisible homophobia? How do I transition away from the introspection I needed to come out yesterday so I can be useful to others today?
The novel flirts with melodrama but resists sentimentality at every turn. Matthew Clark Davison’s insights are as abundant as they are discreet, subtly woven into a story that pans the lies we tell ourselves to make it from one day to the next, to locate glints of life-changing truths.
In Thomas’s thoughtful discussions with friends, lovers and family, there are moments of pure grace, elegant lines drawn between personal and collective grief, between two characters’ differences in away that brings them closer together despite their incompatible experiences.
I think Doubting Thomas has the potential to teach some of us how to be gentle and complicated and loving and accepting of others and of ourselves. It is about nothing less than the getting of wisdom, recalibrating our notions of right and wrong as we grow older, acknowledging privilege and being of use.