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Cataract City

by Craig Davidson

Craig Davidson’s superb storytelling skills, extreme plotlines, and unabashedly masculine take on human conflict have distinguished him from many of his literary contemporaries. He has also proved willing to freely borrow from such diverse genres as detective fiction, dark fantasy, and horror. These unconventional (at least in Canada) narrative and aesthetic strategies are given full rein in Davidson’s new novel, and to better effect than ever before.

Cataract City opens with Duncan Diggs serving the last day of an eight-year prison term for murder. He is picked up by his childhood friend, Owen Stuckey, and driven from the Kingston Penitentiary back to their hometown of Niagara Falls, Ontario. Owen is an officer on the local police force, while Duncan’s resumé as a dog racer, bare-knuckle brawler, and inmate all but guarantee the two men will remain on opposite sides of the law.

After this short opening section, which is narrated by Duncan, Owen takes over, flashing back to the men’s childhood growing up on the same working-class street. Their fathers are employed at the local Nabisco factory – “the Bisk” in local parlance – though Owen’s dad eventually works his way into management and moves the family to a nearby suburb. But before that move, Owen and Duncan undergo an ordeal that bonds them in an uneasy, lifelong friendship.

Their trauma begins at a local wrestling match, where the 12-year-old boys meet their idol, Bruiser Mahoney, and are separated from their fathers during a drunken brawl in the parking lot. While the police break up the fight, Mahoney takes the boys on a joy ride that ends with an impromptu camping trip far from town. After regaling his young charges with wrestling stories, Mahoney, who has been drinking heavily and popping pills, suddenly drops dead, and the terrified boys get lost in the wilderness.

This sequence is one of the novel’s most powerful sections, nicely evoking the fear and wonder of experiencing nature’s beauty and merciless power for the first time. Davidson easily shuttles between Owen and Duncan’s protective intimacy and the harsh, alien world around them.

When they spot a coyote, Owen remarks, “there was nothing doglike about it, at least not like the floppy-eared, slobbering, ball-chasing dogs in our neighbourhood. This creature was built for wild living, a coiled tension in its every movement.” The contrast between the “floppy-eared” dog and “coiled tension” of the coyote establishes the difference between the civilized and natural worlds more effectively than an extended description of the woodland scenery ever could.

The interactions between the boys, the cynical wrestler, and a drifter (likely a sexual predator) who muscles in on their campfire create a spectrum of contrasts – between hopeful boyhood and embittered manhood, innocence and experience. Davidson dramatizes these themes by way of extended scenes of violence, masculine competition, and intimacy, sharpening the thematic focus with vivid concrete images. A greyhound’s uncanny speed and focus is summed up by Duncan’s observation that “there is no other animal on earth whose skull looks more like it ought to be coming down the barrel of a gun,” while a trio of pit-bull owners are described as “southern deputy fat.”

The novel dips in and out of Owen and Duncan’s memories as the two men are drawn back together by a scheme to bring down the local smuggler whose machinations landed Duncan in prison. We learn how Duncan went wrong in life and how Owen, who seems perpetually on the verge of freeing himself from Cataract City’s dark gravitational pull, falls victim to the city’s propensity to maim – if not devour – its offspring.

Davidson handles the transitions between past and present deftly, but the two narrative voices, though distinct and believable, occasionally sound too much like Davidson the novelist. At times, their recollections of distant events are too tidily ordered and detailed. The narrators also use improbable words like “gossamer,” “interregnum,” and “chimeras.” The reader can accept narrative conventions that don’t conform to the real qualities of memory – this is a novel after all – but syntactical slips like these, though small and infrequent, jar the reader from the novel’s spell.

Ultimately, however, it’s exciting to see Davidson filling out his extreme plot with some equally extreme interior terrains, suffusing those desperate inner lives with layers of memory, perception, and psychological portraiture that, although not absent from his earlier works, often acted as a kind of Greek chorus to the main event.