Book Review: Doubting Thomas by Matthew Clark Davison ★★★★

The gap between real support and performative allyship—the lurking fear that beneath the flag waving veneer of equality hides something untrustworthy, the thought that when push comes to shove straight people may not really have our backs—is the starting point for Matthew Clark Davison’s debut novel, Doubting Thomas.

Thomas is an openly gay fourth grade teacher at an affluent school in liberal Portland, Oregon. When he is falsely accused of touching a young boy, he returns home to San Francisco to deal with his family and to rebuild his life one piece at a time.

I remember vividly being at a work function when a handsome straight colleague drunkenly told me that of all the gays in the company—a London media organization, so there were quite a few of us—I was his favourite because he never felt threatened or uncomfortable around me. In that moment I realised I had become the kind of gay man you saw on TV in the 90s. Safe, neutered, nice. These weren’t bad people, far from it, they were a terrific group, but like many other minorities, I’d made myself as innocuous as possible to blend in. Maybe that’s why I felt Thomas’ pain and fear so strongly.

Matthew Clark Davison. Photo credit: Robyn Navarro.

Thomas is nice, clean-up, upstanding… he’s faultless. But when he is accused, his world is ripped out from under him and his pain and anger feel very real. The hypocrisy of the rich, “good folk” of Portland is revealed as they throw him off. His school desperately tries to minimise the damage. And Thomas realises he has let himself be the school’s “token gay”. As his straight brother pointedly asks him, “Have you spent your whole life trying to be like me? Or getting people like me to like you?”

Davison weaves memories into moments with an organic flow, as events spark Thomas’ recollections. Thomas struggles to live in the moment, and the prose mimics this with seamless ease. Everything about Doubting Thomas feels natural, from Thomas’ evolving reactions to his eclectic family that surrounds him, to his creeping fear of less liberal strangers. 

While the premise may sound like this is a legal drama, it’s not, it’s about the people, not the event. It’s about rebuilding after loss. Thomas’ new life gets more complex by degrees as he deals with family, friends, and the aftermath of accusation, in a world where no one is a hero or a villain. I could easily see this as a Big Little Lies-style miniseries on a streaming platform near you.

Some may struggle with this being the story of a relatively rich, white, gay man in liberal America, but in a way that’s the point. Privilege isn’t binary, it’s a matter of degrees, and having it will not insulate you from harsh realities. If the last four years have taught us nothing, it’s that our safety net is always in peril.

Doubting Thomas is a compelling contemporary tale about seeing the world clearly that felt instantly relatable. As Thomas’ nephew tells him, “a superhero turns their freak into strength… they don’t hide.”

By Chad Armstrong

Doubting Thomas by Matthew Clark Davison is available everywhere books are sold June 8th 2021. Support your local LGBTQ+ bookstore.

Visit Bywater Books/Amble Press where e-books are available now for immediate download and you can order signed copies of the paperback to be shipped early.

Matthew’s Doubting Thomas virtual launch party will take place on Zoom with writer Paul Lisicky on June 8th 2021 at 7pm PST.

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