What happens when an openly gay, forty-something teacher with an exemplary record is falsely accused of touching a student inappropriately? Davison’s début novel proposes a believably devastating outcome as the subconscious prejudices of a proudly “progressive” community become weaponized. More broadly, Doubting Thomas is well-crafted meditation on the damage done to the gay male psyche by lifelong shaming.
Thomas McGurrin is a good guy. He became an educator to inspire young people, following the path of a favorite high school teacher who had a huge impact on his life. He initially chose a career in public education, but he was beguiled by an elite private school called Country Day in suburban Portland. With the school’s plentiful resources, he thought he could truly make a difference growing the minds of students. And so he did for a decade, beloved by his grade school students, their parents, and fellow teachers alike.
Thomas is also a good son to his aging parents, a good brother to his younger brother, who struggles with drug addiction, and a favorite uncle to his nephews and nieces. He spends his time off attending the crises and celebrations of his brothers’ families and helping his school principal fundraise and make improvements to the school.
Then, the mother of one of Thomas’s ten-year-old students turns on him for reasons that are not entirely clear. She launches a flimsy allegation. Having been somewhat cocooned from the realities of homophobia, Thomas initially can’t believe anything will come of it. Yet in days, he becomes a sexual predator in the heads of nearly everyone around him.
It’s a brave subject to explore and made braver by Davison’s unqualified and visceral portrayal of Thomas’s journey through disbelief, rationalization, terror, rage, and despair. Many life events induce a crisis of identity and that frightening feeling of not understanding the world. Few are as lonely however as Thomas’s situation. The students, teachers, and parents he’s come to love shun him for an unspeakable crime he didn’t commit. Thomas tries to grapple with how that transformation is possible. Was the school community’s embrace of him all a lie? Did he somehow step across an invisible line that separates an acceptable homosexual from an unacceptable one? Was he set up for failure from the beginning?
Being rejected by Country Day is profound for Thomas as his identity was so wrapped up in the school. Like many gay men, particularly those who are single, his work became the primary source of his personal fulfillment. He’s something of an everyman for gay Gen Xers, coming of age in terror of the AIDS pandemic and carefully measuring how “gay” he can afford to be in order to survive psychologically. Thomas’s internal journey has him critically examining how he ended up in such a place, and Davison shines his brightest in passages that unpack his hero’s personal crisis. How many signs of his inevitable disaster did he deny or rationalize as things that only happen to less careful, less conforming gay people? Did he sacrifice his own happiness in the impossible pursuit of being acceptable to his heterosexual family and friends?
As he seeks answers, Thomas is haunted by childhood messages about the impropriety of same-sex affection, memories of a gay classmates who was brutalized while Thomas stood silent, and the many microaggressions and boundary violations he tolerated from the parents of his students and his brothers while seeking heterosexual approval. That exploration provides some of Davison’s best writing. Similarly, Thomas’s story achieves its greatest impact as we follow him in the aftermath of his removal. Choosing reinvention over self-destruction, Thomas seeks to renegotiate his family relationships and to revisit with greater effort his friendships with the few gay men with whom he allowed himself to be emotionally vulnerable.
On the subject of writing, Neil Gaiman invokes an unattributed but familiar saying that a novel can be best defined as a long piece of prose with something wrong with it. With this important work, Davison achieves something of an anthem for white, gay Gen Xers as Edmund White and Alan Hollinghurst do a similar service for baby boomers, and in that Doubting Thomas feels like it has a place of permanence in LGBTQ+ literature. The storytelling meanders a bit, particularly in the first and last third, which will likely frustrate some readers. For those who stick with it, Davison’s novel offers striking observations on the struggle of gay men of a certain age to reclaim a “spoiled identity.”
A good selection for fans of gay literary fiction in the vein of the aforementioned White and Hollinghurst and authors of Davison’s generation like Rahul Mehta and Matthew Todd.
Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters