Craig Davidson is one of this country’s great kinetic writers. Whether his focus is on bare-knuckle boxing or the lithe grace of racing greyhounds tearing along a straightaway, Davidson’s stock-in-trade is describing bodies in motion. There is a brute physicality to his writing that immediately sets him apart from his CanLit peers, many of whom prefer rumination and stasis to vivid action. It is no accident that one of the words that reappears throughout Cataract City, peppering the prose like a syntactical signpost, is “torque”: This underscores the almost palpable energy with which the author infuses his writing.
Readers familiar with Davidson’s previous books – Rust and Bone, The Fighter and Sarah Court – will recognize in the new novel familiar tropes and ingredients: the Niagara setting, sons’ anguished relationships with fathers (or father figures), boxing, basketball and dog fighting. In this case, however, these elements are married to a new expansiveness that allows for greater thematic heft. They are also married to a novelistic structure more ambitious than anything the novelist has attempted previously – ambitious, though not altogether successful.
The story involves two denizens of Cataract City – the name locals apply to Niagara Falls. At the novel’s opening, Duncan (Dunk) Diggs is being released from the Kingston Penitentiary after serving an eight-year bit for involuntary manslaughter. He is met by his childhood friend Owen (Owe) Stuckey, a Niagara Falls cop whose testimony was instrumental in putting Dunk away. Though as adults the two men find themselves on opposite sides of the law, they maintain an ineradicable bond as a result of three days spent lost in the woods when they were 12.
The boys’ wilderness ordeal, which dominates the first quarter of the novel, is one of several bravura set pieces in the book .By bringing the boys back to the land, so to speak, Davidson cannily situates his story in the Atwoodian survivalist tradition of CanLit, only to shatter any expectations that association might imply. The sequence is harrowing, and Davidson throws every conceivable impediment in the boys’ way, from the elements to roaming, ravenous wildlife to a mysterious human interloper with quite obviously evil intentions.
Significantly, Dunk and Owe are not rescued: They find their way out of the woods on their own, albeit somewhat by accident. This inculcates in them at a formative age the kind of raw self-sufficiency that will characterize them as adults.
The rest of the novel fills in the backstory of how Dunk ended up in jail, then shuttles forward past the opening scene to detail Dunk and Owe’s plan to enact revenge upon the local smuggler – a venal and sadistic native named Drinkwater – whom Dunk blames for the lost eight years of his life. These scenes contain aspects typical to Davidson’s fiction, including visceral, gut-churning moments of bloody violence. In Cataract City, however, there is a new restraint and modulation apparent, and certain emotionally wrenching sequences don’t involve much in the way of explicit gore. The passages detailing Dunk’s prison experience, for instance, smoothly and effectively convey the combined paranoia and claustrophobia that accrue to the reality of being caged like an animal.
The central portion of the book is told in the first person from Dunk’s perspective, bookended by two key sections from Owe’s point of view. The first of these is the story of the boys’ travails in the wilderness; the second, placed at the novel’s close, finds Dunk and Owe, now adults, undergoing a similar experience lost in the wild, this time during the dead of winter. The scenes preceding Owe’s re-entry as the narrative’s driving force are so potent, however, that the repeated aspects of the pair’s wilderness adventures appear flatly anticlimactic. The parallel montage works from an intellectual, literary angle, but less so on an affective level, where the repetition comes off as little more than, well, repetition. True, Dunk and Owe are much more resourceful as adults, but the reader can’t help shake a nagging sensation of déjà lu.
Until, that is, the very last page preceding the epilogue, at which point the author pulls off a reversal so unexpected, so stunning, that the reader is induced to gasp out loud. In its co-mingled surprise and appropriateness, it recalls Moredcai Richler’s revelation, at the end of Barney’s Version, of what actually happened to Boogie Moscovitch: It is a pristine and perfectly timed narrative bombshell. That the 50 or so pages preceding it don’t maintain quite the same level of narrative interest as the rest of the novel should not detract from the otherwise impressive development in its author’s vision and approach.
Steven W. Beattie is the review editor of Quill & Quire magazine.