Review: 'Cataract City,' by Craig Davidson

  • Article by: MALCOLM FORBES , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 2, 2014 - 2:00 PM

FICTION: A no-holds-barred depiction of friendship, hard knocks and blood grievances in Niagara Falls.

"Cataract City," by Craig Davidson

The nickname of Niagara Falls provides the title and setting for Canadian writer Craig Davidson’s latest novel. Cataract City, we are told, “was a pressure chamber: living was hard, so boys were forced to become men much faster.” Two such boys are Duncan Diggs and Owen Stuckey, childhood friends who, after enduring a terrifying abduction in the woods at the hands of their idol, professional wrestler Bruiser Mahoney, are hauled quickly and forcibly into adulthood. Davidson traces the jagged trajectory from not-so innocent youth to hardscrabble later years, and in the process shines a light down some mean streets and into the tortured depths of the human soul.

When the novel opens, Duncan has just been released from an eight-year spell in the “stony lonesome” for killing a man. Owen, a police officer, picks him up and takes him home. It transpires that he was the one who had put him away. From here, “Cataract City” unfolds as the equivalent of a backward glance to shared and separate pasts, eventually returning to the present to determine whether an ex-con and cop can reconcile their differences, settle a score and stay alive.

Davidson’s world is savage, his authorial view pitiless. Duncan is stuck in a dead-end rut on the production line of a cookie factory, all the time waiting for the ax to fall. Pre-police Owen has a promising future as a basketball player — until a car smashes into his knee (swift retribution courtesy of fists and pool cues). Edwina “the Jezebel” breaks Duncan’s heart and then Owen’s. When shady businessman Lemmy Drinkwater appears, the men are led into a twilight realm of bare-knuckle boxing, dogfighting and cigarette smuggling.

As if this weren’t enough, Davidson throws in abandoned puppies, suffocated kittens, a corpse in a mortuary and a baby in a vacuum cleaner bag.

It all adds up to a tale that is not for the fainthearted. And yet while Davidson’s violence is graphic, it is seldom gratuitous. As men slug it out in warehouses, Davidson downplays any whiff of macho glamour by evoking the headier reek of sweat, failure and desperation. In Cataract City, “You pay what you owe, or you’re made to pay.”

The only effective way to convey this is in raw, visceral prose. Fortunately, Davidson has an armory of it. Artificial soft-focus is switched for a murky graininess. Toughness is tempered with grim humor: a demolition derby in a hearse; a do-or-die meal of skinned raccoon. Only Davidson’s dogfights raise doubts, even objections. The pages of greyhounds racing are exhilarating; the pages of pit bulls mauling one another are excessive.

“Man takes on world, world wins.” Davidson’s message is as bleak here as it was in his 2005 short-story collection, “Rust and Bone.” However, the fates of his flawed and undeniably human characters keep us absorbed. As they flail, brawl and go down, their creator packs an emotional punch.

Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh.

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    Review: Brutal and pitiless, Davidson’s novel packs power, although he tempers the toughness with a grim humor.

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